Neuralink Corporation is a California company working on wireless brain interfaces. This technology is commonly referred to as the brain-computer interface or BCI. Neuralink recently released a video testing a BCI implant prototype in macaque monkeys. The device allows monkeys to play video games ("Pong") hands-free with an implanted brain device. If proven safe and effective, the potential for this technology is enormous. Imagine that a paraplegic could use a BCI to control cursors to use a smartphone or computer, or to move a mechanical wheelchair. For people with limited physical abilities, this BCI breakthrough could create a new level of control and independence.
Another Neuralink proposal is to develop a wireless implant that connects an area of the motor cortex to another implant located in the spinal cord. Neuralink explains that this device will one day enable wireless communication with severed or damaged spinal cords, enabling paralyzed patients to regain movement. This is a bold goal with very positive results. However, this biocybernet technology has not been fully tested, proven safe and viable, or approved. This is for the future. Careful and ethical research with animal and human subjects must continue before brain implant technology is widely accepted.
Other companies are working on brain implants. Science Corporation is a company founded by one of the founders of Neuralink and deals in technical bioprosthetics. The first major project is Science Eye, a bioconnected artificial eye for the blind that combines "optogenetic gene therapy" with special biotechnological eye implants. Biocybernetics combines biology and engineering. In ophthalmology, gene therapy creates new proteins in the optic nerve, which are combined with a biologically engineered artificial retina. Science Corps researchers predict that the genetically engineered protein will respond to signals from a cybernetic retina implanted in the optic nerve, which in turn sends information to the cortex to restore vision. This device is currently under research and preliminary work with animal subjects is ongoing.
Salt Lake City-based BlackRock Neurotech created the initial BCI, the "Neuroport Array," by embedding thin silicon chips with microelectrode wires. BrainGate, an American research collaboration, uses the Neuroport array (the only FDA-approved BCI platform) to implant in patients with paralysis. The California Institute of Technology uses this BCI to record brain signals as well as to control robotic devices. Innovations like these could lead to life-changing applications for paraplegic patients.
Recently, Edward Chang, a neurosurgeon at the University of California-San Francisco, used multiple electrodes to decode a patient's brain activity. As reported in the New England Journal of Medicine , the case is a 36-year-old man who can't talk about a stroke. A set of electrodes was surgically implanted in the brain and the man was able to make out words on a screen, making communication possible. These outstanding clinical results were achieved at the crossroads of new technology; 1) using a map of neurons associated with vocal fold activity, 2) training a deep learning model to correctly classify nerve signals into words, and 3) outputting the resulting words to a computer screen.
Recent achievements are only "baby steps": the next steps require innovation and ethical and well-regulated clinical research studies. This technology has the potential to provide new treatments for conditions ranging from paralysis, blindness, spinal cord injury, stroke or other diseases.
If one day you could wirelessly access encyclopedic information from around the world, without using your device or memory, but instead accessing information stored outside of our heads, what would happen to our behavior? What if we had a personal AI assistant in the background for our thinking? Plugging our minds into the digital world offers both good and dark possibilities for mind control and censorship. Sometimes we have to consider the ethical challenges of associating "meta-numbers" with digital clouds and social media. It is great to see BCI technology becoming a reality and being used to treat some of the most challenging conditions, such as blindness and paralysis. This is also the time to consider how BCI will be used in the near future. The potential is enormous and the possibilities are endless.