If you’d like to give a computer information to process, you usually have to type it out or use your fingers to tell the device what to do. On the other hand for you to receive information from a computer you can only use your eyes or your ears and in some situations even touch, but this system is limited because your computer can hold way more information than you can absorb into your brain. At the same time your brain can hold a lot more information than you give it. Using our eyes to absorb information is a slow and cumbersome process, or in other words, it has a limited bandwidth.
Brain Computer Interfaces (BCIs)
Since the 1970s, researchers have been trying to expand the bandwidth of the human-computer interface. How can we more efficiently send and receive more information between our brains and our computers? Would it be possible to connect your brain directly to a computer?
The answer is yes. Due to the cortical plasticity of the brain, signals from implanted prostheses, or devices, can, after adaptation, be handled by the brain like natural sensor or effector channels. This means that it’s possible to connect wires to your brain and use them to send or receive information.
This technology for the most part has been used in research for people who have limited mobility and has also been used in animals and there’s 3 main ways to do it:
In invasive techniques, special devices have to be used to capture data (brain signals), these devices are inserted directly into the human brain by a critical surgery.
In Semi-invasive, devices are inserted into the skull on the top of the human brain.
Non invasive are considered the safest and low-cost type of devices. However, these devices can only capture “weaker” human brain signals due to the obstruction of the skull. The detection of brain signals is achieved through electrodes placed on the scalp.
How do we make invasive surgery, which gives us more data, easy and safe?
The Neuralink System
In July 2019, Neuralink held a live-streamed presentation at the California Academy of Sciences. The proposed future technology involves a module placed outside the head that wirelessly receives information from thin flexible electrode threads embedded in the brain. The system could include more than 3,000 electrodes (tiny wires) per array distributed across 96 threads each 4 to 6 μm in width. The threads would be embedded in the brain by a robot that would avoid damaging blood vessels.
One engineering challenge is that the brain’s chemical environment can cause many plastics to gradually deteriorate. Another challenge to chronic electrode implants is the inflammatory reaction to brain implants. Furthermore, the thin electrodes which Neuralink uses, are more likely to break than thicker electrodes, and currently cannot be removed when broken or when rendered useless after scar forming. Meanwhile, the electrodes are still too big to record the firing of individual neurons, so they can record only the firing of a group of neurons. This issue might get mitigated algorithmically, but this is computationally expensive and does not produce exact results.
Imagine a situation where you’re going to visit your friend in a new city, but you don’t know the place and you need directions. It’s going to be possible using Neuralink, or something similar, for your friend to send you not just only directions, but the entire layout of the area they live in and in that moment you’ll be as knowledgable as them about the city.
That’s what a great BCI could do, among other things. You can control your smartphone without touching it, you can send information from your brain directly to someone else’s brain via the internet. This could be images, text, videos or even maps. It’s a form of telepathy plus the internet and it’s coming in the near future.