The Growth of BCI

 In emerging tech, Neuroscience

BCI: On the Cusp of Greatness

We’ve talked about the BCI (brain connection interface) before when exploring brain hacking. That post is an attempted introduction into the potential of the BCI. Because this science is so mind-blowing (yes, I did), it was time to deeper explore the concepts behind the BCI and some more examples of its use today. Since I struggle to remember what I ate for dinner last night, it makes sense to have a BCI recap.

The concept of the BCI is fairly straightforward at a high level. {Brain} Attach some sensors to different parts of the brain. {Connection} Connect those sensors to a computer. {Interface} Then use software to interpret voltage patterns and translate that into some meaningful message. Although all steps have their challenges, that final step must be the most difficult.

BCI: Wiring up to the brain

This is where the science becomes fascinating. Each company or researcher exploring this space has their own interpretation of how to process brain signals and their meaning. Certain truths seem to be universal, such as the hippocampus housing memories  Others can be harder to decipher, like interpreting certain wave patterns before an event. Those patterns could mean one thing to someone and something entirely different to someone else. However these researchers are coming to their conclusions, one thing is clear: the BCI technology is on the cusp of greatness.

BCI on the big stage: Why now?

BCI is not a new concept, but it seems its popularity is beginning to hit a fever pitch. A few things can be attributed to the recent surge of growth in this field. It helps to understand these drivers so we can talk big picture.

Success Rate

In short, trial and error has finally paid dividends. Early BCI technology depended heavily on basic mapping then regurgitation. I liken this to multiplication tables. First, you learn what 3×2 physically means. Taking three items and doubling them or taking two items and tripling them. This leads you to an answer of 6. After a while, you stop thinking about it and every time you see 3×2, you automatically think 6. This works very well for the basic multiplication tables. However, things begin to breakdown (for some) as the mulitples get higher. Your memorization capabilities become limited.

This is how I perceive some of the early BCI studies. They focused on a specific part of the brain and could hone in on a band of trends they could repeat easily. However, once the system and detail grew (3×2 became 144×132) it became complicated to categorize all those answers. Until recently.

BCI: As easy as multiplication...

With machine learning and AI (artificial intelligence), the BCI is becoming more powerful. Researchers are actually devising software that is able to adapt on the fly to learn as it goes. Said another way, it no longer depends solely on a limited, finite set of math tables because it can learn new ones in real time.

This is incredibly powerful because that means the BCI is adapting to each individual, where as before it was one size fits all. Consequently, this leads to stronger interfacing with other objectives such as bionic or motor control. Effectively, the BCI is now being developed to smoothly become part of your brain’s natural cadence. As such, controlling a limb or motor skill becomes a more natural process. More importantly, it becomes a more accurate and precise process.

Big Data

Another factor to the success of the BCI, somewhat tied to the above topic, is big data. Whereas before researchers suffered from limited experimental data, that is no longer the case. Big data is providing the backbone to faster machine learning which is enabling these recent successes in BCI technology. For any successful dissection of the brain, scientist have found that splicing and analyzing can amount to ridiculous amounts of data. In fact, it seems the most proficient learning has been done when the slices are thin and the readings cover multiple planes. Historically, the sheer data generated by such tests would overwhelm our computers. Now, big data is changing the game. Strings of computers, where cores are stacked up on cores (hyper-threading), now crunch through this data in days or weeks, rather than months or years. Granted, we still are a ways from where we need to be with data stacks this large, but it’s a start.

So what does this mean for those gurus looking through brain data? Well, these data are refining theories and hypothesis made about different parts of the brain. This is because these data can now be used to form stronger trends or draw new correlations that before would have been impossible to see. Again, the power of big data is quite staggering.

 



 

 

We then take this data to a new level when you consider the neuroscience community. Even with big data, it may take multiple years to learn about one particular part of the brain, given the complexity of measuring and defining the ultimate super computer. But with multiple researchers looking at all parts of the brain simultaneously, now sharing all this data can help unlock previously hidden secrets. For example, if Nina in Bangladesh is looking at the specifics of the occipital lobe (part of the brain tied to vision) and Hans in Germany is studying the parietal lobe (part of the brain tied to your sense of self), they can now attempt to stitch their models into a larger mapping. Big data and the internet have simplified the sharing process and thus have flattened the learning curve a bit. All of this is helping to strengthen the BCI and its potential uses.

BCI Uses: Bionic Limbs

Anyone who has lost a limb or had a birth defect limiting a limb has likely thought about replacing that part. Bionic limbs have come a long way over the last 150 years. The BCI is a major reason for the greatest advancements in the last 10-15 years. While the science is far from perfect, true progress is being made in this field. Limbs are surgically being connected to tissue that has a direct path back to the brain and the controlling lobes.

BCI: Impacting Bionic Limbs

The easiest way for me to think about this is to consider a computer system. In a general desktop computer, the operating system may be many possible flavors: Linux, Mac, Windows, whatever. When you connect a mouse or keyboard, you just expect that ‘limb’ to operate with the computer. Whether you knew it or not, behind the scenes there are drivers that interface said keyboard or mouse.

The trusty mouse

Let’s take a look at the mouse. In most modern day computer mice there are red lights on the bottom surfaces. When used on a reflective surface, the mouse is taking a bunch of ‘pictures’ every second to map where it exists with this light. So when you move the mouse, it records a difference in those ‘pictures’. This shift represents a new position for the mouse. That new position is fed to the computer and interpreted. The driver provides the interpretation for your computer. Again, various operating systems see things differently, but that driver is designed to convert those signals into something the operating system can understand. In turn, the operating system then can take those commands and show your cursor movement on the screen, accordingly.

This is exactly what these scientists are doing with the BCI. The limb is the ‘mouse’; the tissue or nerves are the USB cable/connection; and the BCI is a combo of all of this, which includes the driver software. Let’s say the limb is a forearm/hand, from the elbow on forward. In a very broad sense, the BCI is wired into the motor cortex, which controls things such as hand movements. You use your brain to signal to your hand to make a fist, and this transmits a message through your body to control your hand. In this case, the BCI effectively intercepts this signal. It then converts the brain speak into a different message that the limb ‘understands’, sending the new message to the limb. In turn, the limb responds, like that cursor on your screen representing mouse movement, by making a fist.

Of course I’ve greatly simplified what is truly going on with the BCI in this example. Frankly, it is a very complex task to even properly determine which part of the motor cortex you need to interface with, let alone easily integrate a computer interface there. Nonetheless, there are real life examples of this occurring every day. With many prerequisites necessary before the BCI can be attempted, the science isn’t perfect but it is changing lives.

BCI Uses: Stroke and ALS Solver

If you can interface to bionic limbs via the BCI through the motor cortex, why not go a step further? For stroke victims or those suffering from motor neurone diseases such as ALS, motor control of the body is a key loss. And while the BCI hasn’t fully solved all these problems yet, it has at least made some headway into helping these patients. On a high level, the science is very similar to what we just described with bionic limbs.

BCI: Neurons being destroyed by ALSThe issue with stroke or ALS patients is their inability to properly signal motor skill commands to parts of the body. In the case of stroke victims, this is due to damage to the area of the brain where the stroke occurred. For ALS patients, it’s the literal death of neurons that transmit those messages from the brain to the muscles. The BCI is attempting to be that interface that the physical body can no loner be. By intercepting brain signals intended to drive motor stimulation, the BCI acts a replacement for those lost neurons or damaged tissue.

Results are still limited at the release time of this particular posting. However, I personally believe the BCI has massive potential in this arena. The aforementioned big data can be a game changer in expediting this type of research. As researchers continue to acquire data faster and their analysis improves, it is reasonable to assume the testing with the BCI can become more accurate and precise over time. This inevitably should lead to more effective interfaces that can hopefully improve the conditions of these patients.

The future of the BCI: All’s well, right?

The science behind the BCI is truly revolutionary. To think, as human beings, we are this close to figuring out how to hack into our brains to control our body is mind numbing. The true reality may be that we are not nearly as far along as the neuroscience community believes, but there is no denying the progress that is being made. And much like any technology, once the basics are understood, the innovation will come fast and furious. It feels like the BCI is at the tip of the iceberg in terms of its future potential.

Of course, you could go full on ethical and conspiracy theory with this type of technology. What if you had a BCI to control a limb and someone hacked that interface to send false commands? Or simply the issue with brain hacking to begin with? You truly could name multiple reasons as to why the BCI could be alarming to the general public. I don’t think it’s time to panic just yet, but it is certainly something to keep an eye on. The stability and security of the BCI will be critical to its future success, or lack thereof.

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Showing 3 comments
  • valerie christie
    Reply

    That is a very interesting article. Thanks for sharing!

  • Heather
    Reply

    This is all so interesting! The brain is fascinating and it’s incredible to watch all these scientific advancements with technology!

  • Laurence
    Reply

    wow, interesting facts. Information overload :P. But at the same time, I learned something new. Not really familiar with BCI, but this post enlightens it. 🙂

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