A Human Connection: What Does BCI (Brain Computer Interface) Mean For the Future of Technology?

With companies like Valve making significant progress in BCI research and Neuralink showing promise with animal testing, it is very possible that this science comes sooner than we expect.

If you are a fan of television shows like Sword Art Online, or movies like The Matrix, you might be interested in this clip.

(Credit: Neuralink)

This video shows Neuralink, a brain-computer interface (BCI), in action. Neurolink allowed a sentient being to interact with technology via neurotransmitters and brain communication. This may seem like something made in the last ten years right after The Matrix or SAO, but BCI research has been conducted since the 1970s, with professor Jaque Vidal initially coining the term and sparking our fascination with digital worlds. Recently, companies have made great strides in this field: Nextmind made a device that can interact with computers using visual attention, Neuralink  is currently working on the Neuralink Implant, and Valve, which recently partnered with OpenBCI to create ways to exit the physical reality. So, let us talk about what BCI technology can do for humanity and the dangers that come along with it. 

What can it do?

BCI technology has many theoretical applications, with it being used in science fiction as a way for soldiers to become mighty warlords and for detectives to analyze prints and blood on sight. Those are possible fields of application in the near future, however; it is more likely that we will see BCI in more practical fields such as medicine, entertainment, and productivity. 

In the medical field, BCI can be extremely helpful for prosthetics and human augmentation. Implants such as Neuralink can help to form connections between prosthetic limbs and the brain, effectively allowing people to regain functions that they have lost. “In the medical field, AI is inevitable. In this case, the system can achieve more medical marvels, such as adapting to new stimuli and likely can help with transplants,” said Aron Kim ’23, when asked about the perceived impacts of BCI in the medical sector. This seems to be the direction in which were heading. Currently, many institutions are studying this technology. One such institution is Braingate, which is currently working on technology that can help people with ALS and spinal cord injuries in order to communicate and rehabilitate.

An example of BCI application in entertainment is Sword Art Online (SAO), a Japanese action anime where characters connect to a digital space through a helmet and play a role-playing game together. This is often hailed as the end goal for BCI in gaming, where the player gets to explore a brand new world, as if they were born into it and feel every sensation as if they were the character. Yet, this goal may not be that far off, as Valve, creators of the Valve index, has recently announced that they have partnered with OpenBCI to work on VR enhancement methods that would essentially create something like The Matrix or SAO. According to OpenBCI’s website, developer kits can come out by 2022, which is six months away, meaning that we are not that far away from fully immersive technology.

BCIs can also improve education; in China, some schools are using BCI technology to track whether students are paying attention to class and measure their progress. This may sound dystopian to many students, since teachers and administrators are able to basically see inside your head, but this also means that teachers can more appropriately help students who are struggling. This same technology can also exist in workspaces, detecting when an employee’s focus is down so that employers may more aptly improve productivity.

Reservations regarding brain-computer interfaces.

A photo of professors at Tianjin University conducting BCI research. Tianjin University is one of the few institutes in China that is focusing on BCI research, and it holds the current record for BCI controlled typing. (Tianjin University)

However, the implementation of BCI in the classroom leads to a new question: What are the dangers of BCI? As noted in the school anecdote above, BCI can be very intrusive, as it allows third parties such as Tesla and the government to gather information such as that which is contained in people’s thoughts. But just as other technologies have faced security concerns in the past, BCI can overcome these issues very easily.

One such concern is cyberattacks. Hacking has always been an issue with modern technology, and as it becomes easier with each passing year, it is definitely a valid concern. This was even brought up by Valve CEO Gabe Newell in an interview with New Zealand 1, when he noted, “Nobody wants to say, ‘Oh, remember Bob? Remember when Bob got hacked by the Russian malware?” But this should not be as much of a concern as we consider it. Yes, no one wants to be hacked, especially not a machine that can interact with your brain, but you can prevent hacking by practicing precaution, such as not connecting onto random networks and not downloading software from unreliable sources.

Another commonly-held anxiety regarding BCI is its potential long-term health impacts, such as the increased risk of certain diseases and infection. In a report written by Jeffrey G. Ojemann M.D, co-director of the Seattle Children’s Neuroscience Center, he noted that intrusive BCI technology can cause hemorrhages, infection, and tissue damage during the implant, innate ethical issues such as the induction of neuroplasticity, as well real long-term issues such as replacing outdated hardware and the need to replace broken power units. This is something that should be taken into consideration when we talk about BCI research and the application to actual users. However, it should be noted that this concern only applies to implanted BCI technology such as Neuralink, which requires surgery.

No matter how you look at it, BCI technology is the future of humanity. It will be a part of healthcare, entertainment, and workplaces. BCI technology will be a part of our daily lives, and you can expect a more digital world within years to come.