Brain-machine interface (BMI) technology has finally gotten a taste of mainstream attention in the form of movies like Transcendence and Edge of Tomorrow. The silver screen attention is mirrored by the burgeoning startup companies in the BMI space. The Muse headband is taking the positioning of being a kind of brain-training tool to encourage calmness and tranquility, while the versatile Emotiv BMI aims to allow for telekinetic control control of virtual environments with thoughts and facial expressions.
Despite a little YouTube fame and some article features from these technology up-and-comers, most people (even techies) probably don’t imagine technological mind control as something they’ll need to be prepared for anytime soon. After all, this futuristic technology will need oodles of time to develop.
Oddly enough, it’s been a long time coming. Like 3-D printing, brain-machine interface have been developing for decades before it ever “made waves” on mainstream media. The first 3-D printer was created (by Chuck Hull) in 1983… but the researchers like Walter Hess were stimulating brain regions in animals in the 1920’s. Oh, you didn’t know? Don’t worry, most people don’t, but it’s worth having an understanding of what’s already been accomplished to get a sense for what might be possible in the future.
At BrainGate, a massive BMI research initiative starting at Brown University, breakthrough after breakthrough have made it’s lab world renown. Most notably, they have paralyzed patients that can move a mouse on a screen to check email, or who can move a robotic arm to drink coffee (see video here) – all thanks to a direct connection of dozens of thin spikes covered in electrodes, implanted into their motor cortex. This “far out” breakthrough – by the way – happened 8 long years ago. They’ve continued to make amazing progress ever since.
It might seem unusual that any kind of real business could be constructed from a technology that seems to extend human abilities by “hook into” the brain itself. Needless to say, this technology won’t be limited to clinical trails forever. While interviewing Dr. Jason Perge – one of the many brilliant researchers at BrainGate – I asked about the business implications for such a technology when it became viable for the general public. “Once a technology is developed that has a clinical value as well as a business value, it’s relatively straightforward to develop a company around it” said Dr. Perge.
BMI doesn’t have to be tremendously capable to be completely life-altering and viable as a business, either. Dr. Perge states that with tetraplegic populations – like those that the team at BrainGate are working with, “someone might be perfectly happy with the ability to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’”. In the consumer world, we might imagine a BMI implant that allows quantitative traders or software engineers to control a dozen computer screens at once – leaving “un-enhanced” workers of this same kind at a massive disadvantage. However, BMI needn’t be that advanced to gain adoption in the consumer market either. The simple capacity to answer one’s phone, unlock car doors, or find lost items by thought alone would likely make BMI more than economically viable – as a some people are opting for RFID implants in the skin to attain these same objective now.
While some companies are working directly on BMI, some are developing other enhancement technologies around the senses, particularly in the world of augmented reality. The engineers at Innovega are already aiming to allow for an even more immersive experience than the folks at Google Glass. Their headset combines with a pair of contact lenses to allow for an experience that they plan on being far more immersive than anything else on the market (see a sample here). Innovega might be ahead of the curve now, but they’re nowhere near the only game in town, and there’s reason enough to believe that Google won’t be stopping with contacts that detect glucose alone.
We got rid of rock and chisel, of the quill, of the typewriter – what makes anyone feel sure that interacting with computers through the “QWERTY” keyboard layout will last more than a few more years? BrainGate had patients checking email with their thoughts 8 years ago (video here), and Samsung is working on a surprisingly capable non-invasive cousin of this same technology. If such a technology were to make workers more effective, it would seem nearly impossible to stop the sweeping adoption of these telekinetic technologies – just as the personal computer came to dominate the workplace in a short matter of decades.
“Sci-fi” isn’t so far out anymore, and the coming years promise to extend human capacity by bypassing the usual tools and gadgets by tapping into our minds. With brain implants being referred to as this decade’s laser surgery, the future may be headed down a path that few of us are ready for.
We may not be able to predict which enhancement technologies will hit the market first, but it seems that we can safely assume that if a technology could increase human effectiveness, it will be pursued – regardless of inching outside the borders of what we consider “human” today. For technology entrepreneurs, this might imply creating software and applications that fits the immersive computing world of tomorrow. For policy makers, this certainly implies tackling new privacy concerns, and legal limits of “tinkering” with the crossroads of neurology and technology. For consumers everywhere, this shift might imply thinking through our own personal boundaries with technology. Hopefully, thinking ahead will help us navigate that near future when we face them head-on.
About the Author:
Dan Faggella is a graduate of UPENN’s Master of Applied Positive Psychology program, as well as a national martial arts champion. His work focuses heavily on emerging technology and startup businesses (TechEmergence.com), and the pressing issues and opportunities with augmenting consciousness. His articles and interviews with philosophers / experts can be found at SentientPotential.com