Have you ever thought that scenes of telepathically controlled electronic devices in science fiction movies could become a reality? This image has become a reality with research in the Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) field. On November 14, 2022, BRAVO, a Brain-Computer Interface Restoration of Arm and Voice experiment at the University of California indicated the results of an experiment to make sentences using telepathy. It shows that the imagination is no longer pure fantasy.
The connection between human and computer
BCI is an interface that allows computers to use brainwaves, telepathy. It operates a machine by transmitting specific brain waves to the machine's sensors without going through body movements or language. Research in the field of BCI began in 1924 when Hans Berger, a German neuropsychiatrist, discovered brain waves. He was the first to record brain activity as electroencephalography which is the basis of BCI. Later, in 1973, Jacques Vidal, a professor at UCLA, first proposed the word BCI. He then defined brainwave research as manipulating objects through brain waves. In the early stages of the study, BCI technology was mainly used for medical purposes for children with ADHD or severely disabled people. However, it did not show great results for 20 years due to the inconvenience caused by the weight of the devices. In March 1998, when American neurologist Philip Kennedy first introduced the implantable BCI device, he implanted one into the skull of a patient who was completely paralyzed in the lower part of his neck. Then, the patient succeeded in moving the cursor of the computer screen only by postoperative thinking. This was the first successful BCI experiment in which a machine could be operated without touch. In September 2004, U.S. neurologist John Donoghue opened the stage for BCI research when he developed BrainGate, a semiconductor chip that is transplanted into the brain. As such, research on BCI has been actively conducted for a long time.
BCI technology is made using the brain's signaling method. Humans transmit their senses to the brain through neurons that are connected to the whole body. When information about the senses is transmitted to the brain in that way, the brain extracts it as information and then transmits it to the body. Finally, the response to the senses is expressed through language or exercise. In this process, some electricity is generated at the junction between the connected neurons, which are brain waves. The main technology of BCI comes from how to use this brainwave, where the human brain forms a different electricity depending on what sensation it receives. If a device records and stores this, it can predict what information is extracted from the brain when some people receive the senses. In other words, it can analyze the signals to know what humans are thinking and use them to operate the machine. On September 4, 2021, Lim Changhwan, a professor in the Department of Biological Engineering at Hanyang University, said, "If some devices read the intention of exercise in the brain, like moving your arms and legs, you can operate external devices such as robot arms based on this. In addition, if it reads an individual's subjective thoughts or concentrations, it can communicate with people in a vegetative state."1) As the technology of BCI develops, its utilization becomes endless, so it can overcome the limitations of the human body to the extent that it does not connect physically. The BCI research sector has brought meaningful results and is taking a step closer to realizing the technology.
A world that BCI can create
BCI's techniques are divided into invasive and non-invasive types. Invasive BCI technology is a method of directly extracting information by inserting a fine probe tip into the brain. Its technology has the advantage of being able to bring more information than non-invasive method because it directly extracts information. Kim Sungpil, a professor of the Department of Biological Engineering at UNIST, said, "Invasive BCI technology is possible in both directions. "Reading the brain" reads information from the brain to external devices and "Writing it to the brain" re-enters the information from the external environment. So, this technology can be applied to the treatment of various brain diseases."2) Using invasive BCI technology, it is possible for communication between the brain and the machine to develop into a two-way relationship. On the other hand, non-invasive BCI technology does not penetrate the skin or extract information through incisions. It measures the electrical activity of the brain with a machine outside the brain. The iMediSync is a digital mental healthcare system that combines portable brain-scanning devices and AI brain wave analysis technology. In this system, when wearing a BCI machine that looks like a helmet, the connected machine analyzes the state of the brain and regulates one's nerves. As such, the two types of BCI technology are being used in many ways.
There are endless areas in which these BCI technologies will be used. Among them, the field that is currently being actively studied is the medical field. A team of researchers under Douglas Weber, a bioengineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University in the U.S., presented BCI technology at the American Academy of Neurology (AAN) in 2022. It is used as a method of implanting a venous connector into the venous sinus in a way that does not open. They showed patients with Lou Gehrig's disease, who could not use their muscles, using the device. Further, they said, "The research on this device began with Lou Gehrig's patients, but it will also be available for Parkinson's disease in the future. Further development will also be used to diagnose and treat epilepsy, depression, and neurological disorders."3) BCI technology is being developed to control not only the physical but also the mental part. Non-invasive BCI technology is also being actively developed within medical fields. In 2022, researchers at the University of Texas in the U.S. announced that they had developed a hat that can operate a wheelchair. This hat works without having to plant electrodes in the brain of a paralyzed patient. Afterward, when the patient's intention is interpreted using the signals received by AI, the wheelchair is moved as the patient thinks. Thus, BCI has been giving help to the development of the medical community.
Technologies in the BCI field outside the medical community are also being actively developed. On November 21, 2022, researchers at the NeuroK2 Research Association unveiled a technology that can remotely control drones with brain wave signals. The researchers announced, "What we secured during this development process is technology such as noise removal, control signal extraction, and mechanical device control systems. It will allow brain waves to be applied to the operation of new concept weapon systems and robots in the future. According to this, drone remote control technology through the fusion of brain waves and BCI technology can be used in various fields of society in the future."4) It is said that the results of the development of BCI technology applied to drones can be combined with other fields to create greater synergy. BCI technology developed by a team of researchers at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KIST) can also be used in digital devices connected to IoT, so it is highly utilized in real life. This technology allows VR or AR devices to control thoughts beyond the real world. Regarding this, Kim Raehyun, the head of the team said, "Development technology can also be applied to the digital twin, a virtual model of metaverse or physical objects."5) In other words, the scope of the use of BCI technology will expand to the scope of the virtual world. The BCI field is expected to play a significant role in helping regardless of the field.
Still, concerns exist
Although BCI can be used in a variety of fields, using this technology requires discussion. BCI technology goes through the process of connecting with the brain, so if a system failure occurs, a major accident can endanger the person. It is realized by storing information read from the brain in a computer. In this process, if the computer that reads the information of the brain is hacked, it can cause serious privacy violations. This is because it can hack human thinking, not just device hacking. Furthermore, if the system can be controlled, unwanted information such as corrupt ideologies may be injected. If robots handle this system, controlling people through them is more likely to become a reality. On this issue, Dr. Cho Iljoo of KIST said, "Because the BCI field is not right to regulate for the development, we need to come up with countermeasures to solve those problems before being reality."6) It means that it is right to prepare and respond to the side effects before that happens. Therefore, it is thought that measures are needed to cope with the problems of BCI technology.
Cyberhacking is not the only potential problem with BCI. With the emergence of new fields using this technology, the issue of human dignity is being debated. When Elon Musk's neural link company announced that it would put chips in the human brain of non-disabled people, the boundary between humans and AI may be broken. By connecting the brain and the computer, there is a risk that humans will become AI and it will become human. In response, Elon Musk said in an interview, "We can download things that we consider very special."7) If it becomes possible to upload and download information in brain on the Internet, special things could be downloaded in the smartphone. In this regard, some claim that humans can have eternal life. As a human's thought and memory can link to some devices, even if the body dies, the thoughts and memories could last forever. About this worried, there is the forecast that it may be difficult to commercialize due to those considerable risks.
On the other hand, there is another reason that it is difficult to be a reality. Scientists predict that science-fiction superintelligence mechanical technology, such as two-way communication between brain and computer, will not be available for decades. Technology has developed to the point where playing video games or types automatically are available through thinking, but more research is still needed. A research team at the University of San Francisco (UCSF) has developed a device that displays paralyzed patients' thoughts on computer screens but says there are many things still to solve. Professor Edward Chang said, "We need to use fine electrodes that penetrate the brain to be able to record from smaller neural groups. Thus, it can provide more detailed information on neural activity, but the current hardware is not as robust and secure as is needed. In addition, to accurately switch signal commands, it must be recalibrated every day."8) In other words, there are still many things to be supplemented by BCI for accuracy and safety. There are still many steps to create the reality using the BCI.
Prospects for the technology
BCI technology has been under continuous research since the 1970s. Recently, it has become possible, as it has shown promise in the fields of medicine to transportation. However, there are many risks in the BCI sector. This is because new kinds of crimes can occur if it becomes possible to hack information through the brain. Due to these problems, many experts assert that there need to be countermeasures. If the BCI field is developed in various ways by supplementing shortcomings, its influence is expected to be large enough to change our lives.
1) Kim Soongang, "What Future Will BCI Technology That Read the Brain Change?", The Science Times, September 6, 2021
2) See Footnote 1
3) Park Sunjae, "BCI Connecting the Brain to the Computer, Hope for Patients With Paralysis", MEDICAL Observer, April 6, 2022
4) Kim Hankyung, "Successfully Developed Drone Control Technology Using Brain Waves… You Can Fly a Drone Just by Thinking About It", News2day, November 21, 2022
5) Kim Youngjoon, "[ICT R&D Excellence That Will Open in the Future] <Down> Control Objects With Thoughts… 'BCI' Technology Development Is Active With Iitp Support", The Electronic Times, January 10, 2022
6) Kim Bongsoo, "The Age of Brain Science, Quadriplegic Patients Springs to Their Feet [Reading Science]", The Asia Business Daily, August 25, 2021
7) Song Kyungjae, ""You Can Live Forever by Downloading Memories" Musk", The Financial News, April 9, 2022
8) Lee Jaegu, "What I Thought of Is on the Computer Screen... Communication of Paralyzed Patients Who Can't Talk for the First Time in 15 Years With a 'Mind-Read Machine'", Tech42, November 10, 2022