The benefits and risks of neural interfaces
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The benefits and risks of neural interfaces


This week is dedicated to the brain-computer interface, or BCI. For some time now, sci-fi movies and TV series have presented the idea of a mind-to-computer interface that controls technology, retrieves information and displays it on virtual screens. Meanwhile, in the background, a number of companies have been working on this and the technology is close to realising some of the outcomes only seen in fiction so far.

- The concept is not a new one. I've seen experiments from many years ago where a test subject moved a pointer around on a screen using a passive interface. These days, there are many places like the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center conducting experiments with implanted chips. Around the time Covid-19 popped up, one test subject, Nathan Copeland -- paralysed from the waist down -- took home an advanced brain-computer interface device that allows him to control on-screen actions using only his mind. This device uses a multi-electrode array chip that was implanted inside him in 2015 to control a robotic arm that allows him to play computer games, including supporting the fine motor control required to play complex games like Final Fantasy XIV.

- The game developer Valve has also put a lot of effort into this technology over the past few years but with a passive, rather than an implanted, interface. Valve halted production of their next generation of virtual goggles to investigate this further. According to studio president Gabe Newell: "We're way closer to The Matrix than people realise." In practical terms, the goal is to have a headset where the controls are directed by the wearer's mind. Neurable, a start-up gaming company, already had such a device back in 2017 that could control an escape game using sensors in a cap and a Vive virtual reality headset. That company has since moved onto military applications but the technology still remains for the gaming market.

- In the case of Nathan Copeland, the signals don't just go in one direction. Sensors in the arm also trigger responses like tingling, pressure, warmth, tapping and vibrations -- elements of the sense of touch. However, this has also raised questions and ethical concerns. Could you stimulate a craving, or addiction, or a preference so that your behaviour could be modified? Any game manufacturer's marketing and sales departments would love it if their products became addictive, no matter what disclaimers they might publish. Imagine for example getting positive physical feedback, triggered directly by the game, for each level you pass or win. There are already people spending thousands of dollars for levelling up in games like Genshin Impact without that direct link. Add physical feedback to the equation and you can see where this might lead. Now, add in the sharing of this data with a corporation like Google and this technology potentially starts to get scary.

- Will there be principles on the permissible use and misuse of neurotechnology and user rights? Typically, government policy lags technology, so the creation of a technological bill of rights will be well behind the potential misuse. I'd be happy to start with a basic on/off switch for data transmission to an outside entity like Google.

- Personally, I'm waiting for the neurofeedback device from Mendi that I signed up for on the equivalent of Kickstarter. It is a passive device that is billed to improve mental well-being, performance and overall health via "brain enhancement training" at home. I'll let you know how it goes when I get it.

- Elon Musk recently revealed that his Neuralink brain implant has been successfully implanted in a monkey's brain allowing it to play video games. Musk also claimed that he's not an unhappy monkey and that a US Department of Agriculture representative sent to check the facility said it was the nicest she'd seen in her entire career. So happy monkey aside, the aim of the Neuralink is to improve and speed up human-machine communication. Musk pointed out that the bandwidth between your cortex and your smartphone is slow. He estimates a direct connection would speed things up by a factor of 1,000 orders of magnitude -- a lot. If two people had a Neuralink, it might even be like telepathy because of the compressed exchange. "Sort of like a Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires that go to your brain," he added, before promising more updates in a couple of months.

- To end the article this week, we have some artificial intelligence news. Samsung is planning to test an autonomous ship in August this year. The 133m-long, 9,200 tonne training vessel will make a five-and-a-half hour trip under automation. The aim is to sell automation kits for ships by 2022. What could possibly go wrong with a 200,000 tonne vessel under computer-only control? Back in South Korea, Hyundai and Kai have announced that despite the rumours, they are not working on an Apple car.

James Hein is an IT professional of over 30 years' standing. You can contact him at

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