Brain-controlled computers are a becoming reality, but major hurdles remain



Brain-controlled computers are a becoming reality, but major hurdles remain

From Tom Cassauwers
Imagine controlling your computer by simply thinking. It sounds far-out, but actual advances are happening on these so-called brain-computer ports. More research workers and organizations are moving into the region. Yet major challenges remain, from consumer training to the fact of invasive brain enhancement procedures.

Sensors in pig minds — which ’so exactly what Elon Musk is now working on. The entrepreneur is mostly known for his job at Tesla and SpaceX, but he’s also behind Neuralink, a firm promising to change brain-computer interfaces. These devices would allow individuals to control computers with their mind. Neuralink is examining their new technologies on actors. Throughout a press conference at September Musk even trotted out a pig with a brain transplant  that tracked stimulation of her snout.

All this may seem like science fiction, or hype, but this research field holds promise. Brain-computer ports or BCIs, may in the future help patients with brain injuries or impaired motor skills recuperate or even better participate in their environment. Someone with diminished motor skills could command a mechanised wheelchair with their mind, or perhaps even household appliances and apparatus such as a television or thermostat without even raising a finger, increasing their freedom. In the long run it may even help improve people’s cognitive capacities. However, for now a range of technological and human challenges remain.


These challenges are the things Dr Fabien Lotte, Research Director at Inria Bordeaux-Sud-Ouest at France, is researching. ‘Most brain-computer interfaces work, but don’t work nicely,’ he explained.

There are two main kinds of BCIs: noninvasive and invasive. The non-invasive versions are definitely the most frequent, and so are simply sensors put on the human head, such as a high-tech hat filled with wires. They measure brain activity and then interpret that information to a computer. Invasive BCIs on the other hand are detectors placed inside the skull, and that’s exactly what Neuralink is researching.

A BCI may want to generate a mouse pointer move left or directly depending on the consumer ’s mind activity. Dr Lotte cites that, on average, BCIs get it right about 60% to 80% of the time, although this depends on how many mental orders are included. A system which simply makes a cursor go left or right comprises just two psychological commands and has a greater accuracy rate of about 70% to 80%. Thus once every few tries the system produces a mistake. ‘If your computer mouse makes that lots of mistakes, you wouldn’t even rely on it,’ Dr Lotte stated.

However, for Dr Lotte the difficulty could also lie not just with the technology but also the people utilizing BCIs. ‘Controlling a BCI is a skill you will need to learn,’ he explained. &lsquoWe don’t merely require great technology, we additionally require well-trained users. ’

Dr Lotte leads a research project, called BrainConquest, which layouts better instruction for non-invasive BCI users. The researchers give the consumers exercises such as playing a video game with their mind, where somebody thinks about an activity that needs to be carried out on screen. However, the team is designing better opinions systems, such as tactile gloves that provide vibrations on the consumer ’s hand.

Social opinions, like reinforcement, can be examined. They designed a artificial companion, called PEANUT, which resembles a cute animation robot, with a display to get a face. ‘It’s very hard to have an individual instructor that’s persistent,’ stated Dr Lotte, arguing an artificial companion offers a more uniform interpretation of mind activity and may still offer a helpful feedback experience.

The study is still underway but shows remarkable gains in some specific users. A mix of tactile and visual feedback provides on average a 5% boost in precision for the whole evaluation group. PEANUT has a positive effect on individuals who like to work in classes. With no PEANUT their precision is about average 63%, which extends up between 5% and 10% based upon the consumer. Users who like to work alone, however, see a reduction in operation when PEANUT is present.

‘Most brain-computer ports work, but don’t even function nicely. ’

Dr Fabien Lotte, Inria, France


Technology on the other hand stays a challenge. Dr Aaron Schurger, assistant professor at Chapman University in the US, asserts that the approach to data-analysis BCIs usage can be improved. Traditionally, BCIs just use the information from if users wish to take an action. They, for example, collect considerable quantities brain information from when a consumer wants to earn a mouse pointer return and use to realise when they need to take that activity.

However, Dr Schurger asserts we will need to appear past that narrow group of advice, and include info from when the mind is, say, in the rest. This is a notion he previously explored from the study project ACTINIT. ‘We’re now looking at all the information,’ stated Dr Schurger. ‘Not just the information right before a motion. ’

Dr Schurger contrasts this to weather forecasting, in which meteorologists use considerable amounts of weather information to make predictions about what will occur. ‘If you want to predict when it’s going to rain, then you ’t even do an excellent job in the event that you simply look at rainy times. You may miss half the image that way. ’

However if BCIs wish to really resolve the problems which are plaguing them right now, more radical action may be needed than consumer training or better information analysis. It’ll require researchers to go past noninvasive technologies. One key non-invasive method is called EEG or electroencephalography. This electrodes are connected to the scalp, and that measure the electrical current sent by the neurons inside the mind. ‘EEG steps microcurrents that reflect brain activity,’ stated Dr Lotte.

As soon as a person chooses an action or thinks about it, that might fire hundreds of thousands of neurons, thereby generating electrical current that’s large enough to be quantified on the scalp. Software systems subsequently try to create sense of the data and link it to an action or thought.

However, for Dr Schurger, EEG has efficiently plateaued. ‘People have been focusing on this problem for a few decades and there haven’have been some major breakthroughs for a long time,’ he explained.


The crucial question here is the thickness of the skull. It may protect our mind very well, but it also makes it more challenging to find out exactly what ’s going on beneath.

‘The signal in the mind is extremely feeble ’, stated Dr Schurger. ‘Imagine if you place a few microphones above a packed football stadium, and also you ’re trying to pick on one conversation. You may realise when a objective is scored, but single dialogue is extremely tough to distinguish. ’

The remedy would be to go in the stadium, closer to the activity. Or to get BCIs, drill in the skull and also attach detectors straight to the mind. This gives researchers a much better signal, and invasive BCIs are installed in people since the late 1970s, in experimental instances where they revived partial vision in blind patients and enabled paralysed individuals to treat prosthetics. However they also come with a selection of healthcare considerations.

First, doctors will need to convince patients and regulators to let them set up a device inside someone ’s mind. On top of this, there might be medical issues. A patient’s entire body may develop immune system around the sensor, or even reject it. Which could lead to a worse signal for the apparatus, or adverse health consequences for the individual. ‘There’s foreign thing inside your skull,’ stated Dr Schurger. ‘The human body tends to want to deny that. ’

For all these reasons, the more futuristic applications where machine and human fuse together to enhance cognitive skills, will most likely have to await a little while. For now, medical programs will most likely dominate the field according to Dr Schurger.


But BCI systems which don’t even work perfectly well still find software. Dr Lotte mentions that non-invasive BCIs will help rehabilitation of stroke patients, which he explored using the Pellegrin hospital at Bordeaux. A stroke patient today already must exercise damaged portions of their mind by, for example, thinking about a specific action. A BCI can help the patients by giving them feedback about this mind exercise, even though it’s too early in the project to show results about the effectiveness.

‘Here it doesn’t even matter that the machine isn’t very reliable,’ stated Dr Lotte. ‘You’re not trying to control anything. You’re trying to re-learn how to use the region and enhance the restoration. ’

The following use-case Dr Lotte cites is passive BCI. This technology is used to monitor brain activity. High-risk professionals such as pilots can in the upcoming wear a non stop BCI during a trip to monitor their exhaustion and concentration. By tracking their brain activityand other team members can detect when they are too overwhelmed or tired. The same concept could even be utilised to measure engagement levels of pupils, to ascertain how to accommodate learning materials.

Dr Lotte doesn’t even need to create predictions about if BCIs, if noninvasive or invasive, may see broader adoption. However he’s discovering BCI start-ups pop up more regularly. ‘BCI study is getting a hot topic in the last few years,’ he explained. ‘Many labs and companies are focusing on it, but to date it’s not reliable. ’

Dr Schurger agrees. He warns about the hype, but believes the field is advancing. ‘Use of invasive BCIs increase in the next five to ten years,’ stated Dr Schurger. ‘For health care usage we’re likely to see major activity during this period. ’

The study in this article was funded from the EU’s European Research Council. If you enjoyed this report, please think about sharing it on interpersonal networking.

Released by Horizon

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