We watched the Neuralink event - here's what you can realistically expect in 3-5 years.
September 23, 2020
Brain-computer interfaces (BCI) entered a wider consumer spotlight when the Neuralink team unveiled their early-stage results of testing with invasive BCI for the first time. Founded by tech billionaire Elon Musk back in 2016, the demo featured a BCI chip implanted inside a pig’s brain during their live-broadcasted event. The feat, as quoted by Musk in the Verge, was more for recruiting efforts rather than a scientific demo.
Consumer BCI has been fraught with overhyped promises, underwhelming capabilities, and inaccessible concepts/language/developments. The very nature of this area of work distorts public perception given preconceived expectations of “the force” or mind control when prompted by “neurotechnology.” This leads consumers to wonder what we can realistically expect to see in the next 3-5 years in the BCI or neurotech industry. To help clarify concepts, we consulted with our own in-house industry experts at Neurable, as well as the expertise of Dr. Alik S. Widge at the University of Minnesota to get their take on what’s to come in this field.
Invasive BCI isn’t a new concept, but its application for a widespread consumer audience is still a ways off. Currently, there are a few consumer-facing companies that are immediately offering benefits for consumers through noninvasive applications.
While the concept of an invasive BCI, an implanted chip, is not new, it’s still not a consumer-facing reality either. In the meantime, consumers cand turn to noninvasive BCI options to experience the benefits within BCI technology.
Much like its founder’s other projects (Tesla and SpaceX), the Neuralink project is ambitious.
“He is not afraid of betting big, and this has allowed him to push the envelope to the maximum and succeed,” says Dr. Ali Yousefi, a lead scientist at Neurable. “I think we can all agree that Tesla is a technological advancement that’s leading to more success.”
An all-in approach is not one to take lightly, and naturally lights up press mentions with its take. Consumers expressed concerns on what this means to the future of privacy – with an invasive approach naturally driving comparisons to science-fiction shows like Black Mirror. The minute you embed something directly into someone’s skull, you cross a boundary that hasn’t yet been widely discussed.
A question of ethics
Musk’s Neuralink project is in the early stages of live experimentation, beginning with cranial implants in pigs in order to gain an understanding of how our brains work and how they can be interpreted.
While this public instance of invasive BCIs may be new to some, research on brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) is not. BCI technology is primarily used for research or medical applications. There has been limited success in consumer BCI applications and products, which either succeeded due to limited to few use cases like meditation. At Neurable, we aim to change this reality and provide a valuable, dependable, and easy to use neural interface wearable with our everyday BCI product. Take – for example – the BrainGate research program at Brown University, which is researching the power of BCI technology and its use in prosthetics. Similarly, there are many companies that are actively involved in the BCI scene and have already released products using the power of BCI.
Neuralink poses a question of perception in the larger neurotech industry due to its prominence and position. The publicity and theatrical positioning that Neuralink has demonstrated make BCI technology seem a little too good to be true, especially when the benefits are not yet clear along with the potential risks that may come with the implant.
Considering the relevant ramifications of touting a technology that’s not quite ready for the consumer market yet; especially when noninvasive BCIs have made themselves more available for a consumer market share for some time.
Our earliest work at Neurable proved that BCI is able to move beyond laboratory settings, as demonstrated widely in an event with MIT Tech Review. The conversation about the consumer potential of BCIs is here but begs the question – when is an invasive BCI most relevant and beneficial?
When might an invasive BCI be beneficial?
Invasive BCIs largest claim to fame comes with the potential to help those with existing mental, emotional, and neurological conditions. Initial studies have shown that “...BCI technology may allow individuals unable to speak and/or use their limbs to once again communicate or operate assistive devices for walking and manipulating objects.” However, these studies are in fairly preliminal stages; even Musk doesn’t see the technology as being quite there yet. During the Neuralink demo, the technology was pitched as a preventative measure, rather than a remedy.
“Typically when looking at types of remedies towards chronic pain that has the smallest amount of interference on our daily lives will always be the most favorable,” Dr. Ali Yousefi, lead scientist at Neurable said, “The same story could be told with invasive and noninvasive BCIs as well; if we determine that BCI technology plays a role in preventive medicine, we can predict that a noninvasive option would be preferred in comparison to an invasive option.”
Neurological disorders are a challenge for physicians to cure and even more of a challenge for the patients that live with the uncertainty. Industry leaders are in agreement that this application of BCI technology still needs further research conducted.
Experts in noninvasive BCI have not only created opportunities for a more accessible world, but also provide us with further understanding of how our brain works. Without requiring any implant or surgery, scientists working in noninvasive BCI implementations have already been able to allow individuals suffering from disabilities to improve or recover their mobility and communication within the surrounding environment [source], and . We’ve also unlocked further understanding behind how our brain works, by taking a look at how signals are processed within the brain itself.
Thanks to recent BCI research, we’ve unlocked how our brain’s internal state makes decisions, where motor signals are located, and even what our brain replays in our sleep. While practical application of these findings is still to come, the research moves the field forward as a whole.
That does not mean that invasive BCI efforts are too far off; cochlear implants, and prostheses are two variants that are currently actively in practice today. The future of neurotechnology is closer than one may realize.
“Invasive BCI might be helpful for people with neurologic disease, injury, or limb loss,” Dr. Yousefi said. “However, objectives like boosting human intelligence or enhancing interaction bandwidth first need a deeper understanding of the brain and cognition with invasive BCIs as just one part of a larger puzzle.”
Putting the puzzle pieces together
The BCI industry is expected to be a nearly $4 billion-dollar industry by 2027, leaving room for growth, with opportunities in both medicinal and consumer markets. Noninvasive BCI technology is already on the market in the form of wearable devices, helping individuals gain a better understanding of themselves.
This does not mean that invasive BCI companies like Neuralink don't serve a purpose, Dr. Ramses Alcaide envisions the future of companies like Neuralink as essential towards creating a structure and forecast of what’s to come.
“As for Neuralink, it is clear that their initial goal is to consolidate the work of many research institutions and create plausible functional systems that demonstrate how far we can currently go,” said Dr. Ramses Alcaide, “Elon’s team provides high hopes that they will be working and translating their technology to humans.”
Alcaide also alludes to the fact that there is a lot of work to still be done. The technology for widespread adoption of invasive BCIs like Neuralink hasn’t hit human trials yet, and there are still lines to be drawn in regards to consumer-facing invasive BCIs.
“We don't expect brain surgery to be the go-to for the next 20-50 years. In the next 10 years we can expect to see continuous progress in material biocompatibility, increased electrode density, and optimistically lab use of prosthetic devices and human trials,” Dr. Alcaide said, “Theses are all necessary steps toward creating the incredible future invasive BCI companies have to offer.”