Why Elon Musk, Facebook and MIT Are Betting On Mind-Reading Technology

So, if we really could
have an interface with a computer, with an
artificial intelligence that could read our minds, you
can imagine a case in which we could
be immortal. But that would completely
change humanity and what it means
to be human. Merging the human brain
with a computer would truly change our
species forever. Researchers are developing
technology that can transfer data between computers
and our brains, and even read
people’s minds. For now, we have the
power to detect brainwaves and track electrical pulses
within the neurons in our brains, and researchers
are using this information, however vague,
to aid the differently abled and make
life easier for everyone. Among these
researchers is 16-year-old Alex Pinkerton. Really, all that we’re
working on is a brain-computer interface
that utilizes graphene, and hopefully if
our math is correct, it’ll be sensitive enough
to read the magnetic fields of human thought. It was in the 1970s
that the Department of Defense first started funding
brain-computer interface research. That market is
expected to reach a value of $1.72 billion by 2022. Big players like Elon
Musk and Facebook have teased their entrance into
the market, while other companies are showing
their work in action, like CTRL Labs,
who created a wristband that measures electrical pulses
from the brain to the neurons in a person’s
arm allowing them to control a computer. New and exciting research
is pouring out of universities like MIT and
the University of California in
San Francisco. So, what is
a brain-computer interface? It’s a way in which
a computer can take information directly from the
brain without you having to type or speak
it in and translate that into some kind of action. That’s what Pinkerton is
working on; a connection between the brain and a
device, like your phone or a prosthesis. He was first inspired by
his dad who works on clean energy. My dad came in to talk to
our class when I was in third grade about graphene, just
to give a little presentation. I’m not sure why,
but that sort of sparked my interest and I
had just been thinking of like, why isn’t this
being used everywhere if it’s like the
perfect material? And so I started thinking
of applications, and at first it was mainly, like,
for the military or something. Now, it’s sort
of focused away from that and to,
well, the brain-computer interface and, like, VR
maybe, super immersive VR. Obviously it could
help the disabled. Pinkerton is the co-founder
and CEO of Brane Interface. For the past few
years, he has been spending his holiday breaks
and the occasional weekend in his dad’s lab
working on his graphene brain-computer interface. I was just at my dad’s
office after school and we used a program called Math CAD
just to type in a bunch of numbers to
fit the characteristics of graphene for a
brain interface. And at first it wasn’t
working, and so we just kept tweaking and tweaking
and tweaking until it finally was able to get
to the low magnetic fields of human thought. Graphene is an almost
impossibly thin layer of carbon only a
single atom thick. We’ve finished two
prototypes that haven’t utilized graphene, it’s just
Mylar, which is basically just
Saran Wrap. The first prototype can reach
10 to the minus three Tesla, second type 10
to the minus 6. So, really nowhere near. But this new graphene
prototype that’s about halfway done, if our math
is correct, we’ll be able to reach 10 to the
minus 15, which is the level of human thought that we
need to have for a successful brain
interface. The goal is to
have a computer-brain interface that is small enough to fit
in an earbud or the inside of a hat that
will allow users to use thoughts to control
physical devices, like playing music on their phones
or to control a prosthesis. People know that it could
be used for all these amazing things, but they
really haven’t found the killer application and I
think that’s what we’ve done. His goal is to keep
the costs down so the technology can be
available to anyone. Right now, a lot of
brain interface technology is super cumbersome, inefficient
or expensive, so we’re hoping to get all
three of those things sort of out of the way. It’s basically, it can fit
in earbud, it can read the magnetic fields of
human thought with no problem and it’s
relatively inexpensive. You can imagine how good
that could be for disabled people. They could move robotic arms
just by wearing the earbuds and thinking about
it, instead of having, well, basically their skull
opened up and electrodes put on
their brain. Elon Musk’s version of
this technology might be one of those
skull-opening options. Neuralink, a company co-founded
by Musk, is working to add a digital
“third layer above the cortex that would work
well and symbiotically with you.” The purpose of Neuralink
is to create a high-bandwidth interface to the
brain such that we can be
symbiotic with A.I. The Neuralink website has been
little more than a list of job applications for
a while, and it update has been teased
as “coming soon” for months. But this
technology would supposedly require invasive surgery. What is seems that they’ve
done is they’ve taken rats, and they’ve implanted this
kind of grid of electrodes, but they’ve done
it using a technique that they call, like,
a sewing machine which seems to, like, put
these electrodes in really, really quickly, because you
have to be really specific when you
plant these electrodes. But ultimately, what it seems to
be for is a way of, sort of linking brain
activity in these rats to some kind of a
computer and possibly to each other. And the envelope keeps
getting pushed further. A recent breakthrough at
the University of California in San
Francisco showed how researchers can read the
brain’s signals to the larynx, jaw, lips and
tongue, and translate them through a computer
to synthesize speech. And in 2018, MIT revealed
their Alter Ego device, which measures neuromuscular signals
in the jaw to allow humans to
converse in natural language with machines simply
by articulating words internally. But how can
you recognize certain brainwaves? How can you
filter out the “play music” command over the
constant noise of thoughts and brainwaves? So, when someone says they
have a tool measuring brainwaves, the first thing I
want to ask is, “how do you know
they’re actually brainwaves, as opposed to just some
electrical changes that happen from the
head and neck?” Like, for example, from
the cranial nerves, the nerves that innervate the head
and neck and help you blink, or, you know,
feel your face, because the signals from deep inside
the brain are harder to get at. See, in the examples
from the University of California in San Francisco
and MIT, both studies focused on computers working
out a person’s intentions by matching brain
signals to physical movements that would usually
activate in a person’s vocal tract
or jaw. They’re using signals that
would usually trigger muscles to simulate what
the body would do. The deep, internal thoughts
and processes within our brain are
still quite elusive. Let’s say that we’re trying
to create a device that allows us to play
music from our Sonos or some speaker system in
our house, right? So, how I would imagine
telling the Sonos to do that versus how someone
else would might be pretty different. But you could train me
to do it. And that is
exactly Pinkerton’s intent. And you can kind of
teach, almost teach the brain to do specific things
over and over again. Now, this is not
entirely new information. We’ve been hooking brains up
to machines to read electrical activity since
the 1920s. And brain-computer
interfaces? These are tools that people
been working on since the 1970s and, you know, there
are still a lot of hurdles in terms of
making them commercially available. For a lot of
these tools, you actually need to sit very still
and you to keep very still. And so that doesn’t
have a lot of real world applications, so I
think that that limitation is something that
a lot of engineers really are facing, is how
do you continue to distinguish signal from noise
when the person is moving? That’s a major problem,
but I feel like in the last 10 years,
there’s been a lot more interest in terms of
commercial companies trying to create a product that
allows this to happen. So, you know an example
is virtual reality, I think that is a pretty clear
way in which a BCI might be helpful. Brane Interface said it
has been approached by several technology and
investment companies, but plans to finish its
prototype later this year before seeking
those opportunities.

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