The concept of creating a brain-computer interface has been discussed and studied in the highest levels of academia for longer than you might expect. So you might be surprised to learn that this HiTech concept was first explored nearly 50 years ago by researchers at the University of California. In fact, during this time, the term brain-computer interface was coined.
To many people, the thought of connecting technology with the human brain is terrifying and dystopian. However, while the science fiction portraying brain computers can seem bleak, the reality of BCI technology is far more promising and hopeful, particularly to people with disabilities.
If the idea of implanting external devices and connecting them to the human brain troubles you, you might be surprised to learn that hundreds of thousands of hearing impaired people benefit from cochlear implants. While these external devices are implanted in the body, they are not implanted directly into the human brain. They do, however, send electrical signals to the brain and help hearing-impaired individuals hear more. So, while cochlear implants might not technically be considered an example of BCI technology, they are closely related.
This post will explore what brain-computer interfaces are, the different types tested and used in real-world applications, and review some of the promising uses this technology has for humankind.
What Is a Brain-Computer Interface?
A brain-computer interface is a computer-based system that collects brain signals and translates them into commands which are then relayed to an output device to complete a specific task. This is a narrow definition of BCI technology, excluding our previous example of cochlear implants. Under this strict academic definition, cochlear implants are not considered BCI technology because they don’t collect brain signals. Instead they collect audio stimulus and translate it into electrical pulses that are sent to the brain.
The academic definition of brain-computer interfaces strictly limits the use of the term BCI to technology that measures and uses signals created by the central nervous system. Electroencephalogram (EEG) machines are not considered BCI technology either because they only record brain signals. EEG machines do not generate an output signal that acts on the user’s environment.
This information can be confusing but put simply, brain-computer interface technology should allow users to act on their surroundings using brain signals instead of muscles. The user and the interface technology work together to complete actions. There is a lot of hope in the medical community that BCI technology can help so many people who suffer from debilitating disabilities like paralysis.
The Different Types of Brain-Computer Interface Technology
There are three primary brain-computer interfaces, invasive, semi-invasive, and non-invasive interface technologies. Invasive interface technology involves implanting a device directly into a person’s brain. So far, there has been limited scientific research on this type of interface due to the complexities involved in testing it in a human brain.
While we know just about everything there is to know about modern computers and mobile app and web development, we still know very little about our brains. Therefore, implanting a device directly into the brain is dangerous, and more research needs to be conducted before it can be considered on a commercial scale.
Semi-invasive interface technology also involves implanting a device, but the difference is a semi-invasive device is laid on the brain, not embedded inside it. There has been one documented study involving a semi-invasive BCI device. In 2004, Matthew Nagle was implanted with a device built by CyberKinetics called BrainGate.
Matthew was paralyzed from the neck down following a spinal cord injury. However, BrainGate gave him the ability to control a mouse on a computer screen using his thoughts. Matthew was also able to open and close a prosthetic hand, change TV channels, and perform any action that required the click of a button.
Due to FDA regulations and the protocols of the BrainGate study, the BCI device was removed from Matthew’s head after one year. BrainGate used Machine Learning to train the interface to recognize Matthew’s thought patterns and respond with the intended action. Since the BrainGate trials, there have been other semi-invasive BCI experiments that have yielded promising early results.
Non-invasive brain-computer interface technology is the most widely used and studied BCI. This type of interface requires no surgery. Often non-invasive BCI will come in the form of EEG electrodes or a mesh head covering. Scientists have been able to measure EEG signals for quite a while. The skull presents issues in getting clear brain signals, but there have been several successful, if not rudimentary, non-invasive brain-computer interfaces.
What Can Businesses Do With BCI Technology?
At the moment, there is very little your business can do with brain-computer interfaces. However, a time is rapidly approaching when this technology will be used commercially. Already, innovators like Elon Musk and tech giants like Facebook have been experimenting with BCI tech.
While the value of brain-computer interface technology from a medical industry perspective is clear, any other industry or company that sees business value in Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality technologies will also benefit from BCI systems.
BCI systems will revolutionize gaming, education, entertainment, and modern psychology. But, unfortunately, right now, there is not much your business can do with brain-computer interface technology. Still, the moment this technology is commercially available is coming sooner than many people might realize.
If you’re interested in BCI systems, begin investing time and resources in Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality technologies. AR and VR will be closely linked with brain-computer interfaces. If you want to learn more about HiTech advancements like BCI systems or VR, reach out to an app development partner. A partner will help your business prepare for the day when a brain-computer interface becomes commercially available.