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Brain-computer interfaces: Promising tech needs regulating

Connecting a computer directly to the brain could revolutionise healthcare, but the tech giants might monopolise data and application areas

In a new report out today, scientists discuss the benefits to society of neural interfacing technology.

The report, iHuman: Blurring lines between mind and machine, looks at how neural interfaces, which connect the human brain to computers, could transform medicine and human interaction.

Christofer Toumazou, chair in biomedical circuit design at Imperial College London, said: “The applications for neural interfaces are as unimaginable today as the smartphone was a few decades ago. They could bring huge economic benefits to the UK and transform sectors such as the NHS, public health and social care.”

But Toumazou warned that if developments are dictated by a handful of companies, then less commercial applications of the technology could be sidelined.

The report calls on the UK government to launch a national investigation into neural interface technologies to stimulate innovation and allow the public to shape the field.

Tim Constandinou, director of the Next Generation Neural Interfaces (NGNI) Lab at Imperial College London and co-chair of the report, said: “By 2040, neural interfaces are likely to be an established option to enable people to walk after paralysis and tackle treatment-resistant depression. They may even have made treating Alzheimer’s disease a reality.

“While advances like seamless brain-to-computer communication seem a much more distant possibility, we should act now to ensure our ethical and regulatory safeguards are flexible enough for any future development.

“In this way, we can guarantee these emerging technologies are implemented safely and for the benefit of humanity.”

According to the Royal Society, the most advanced attempts to send thoughts to date are at the level of artificial intelligence (AI) recognising simple brain patterns that correspond to pre-trained words or answers.

Last year, IBM unveiled how it would be possible to use an OpenBCI headset in a natural environment to decode the intentions of test subjects purely by analysing their thought patterns.

Stefan Harrer, a research scientist at IBM, wrote: “By running the to-date largest cohort of healthy test subjects in combination with neurofeedback training techniques and deep learning, we show that our AI-based method is more robust than previous studies attempting to decode brain states from OpenBCI data.”

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In July this year, Elon Musk announced that by 2020, his company, Neuralink, hopes to start trials in which ultrafine electrodes are inserted into the brain to enable people with locked-in syndrome or paralysis to control a computer or phone.

During the presentation announcing the company’s ambitious goals, Musk said: “With a high-bandwidth brain-to-machine interface, we can actually go along for the ride and have the option of merging with AI. Our goal is to selectively stimulate as many neurons as possible across diverse brain areas.”

Similarly, Facebook has said it is working on a system that it claims would enable people to type with their brains. “We have a goal of creating a silent speech system capable of typing 100 words per minute straight from your brain – that’s five times faster than you can type on a smartphone today,” the company said during its 2017 FB8 developer event.

In July this year,  Facebook unveiled the work it was doing with the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) on the system.

The Royal Society has recommended that the UK government and the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Authority (MHRA) trial new ways of encouraging innovation to prevent a monopoly by “big tech” firms.

It suggested using a “sandbox” approach for new medical devices to demonstrate their safety and efficacy in a controlled environment. It also said the public should have a clear voice in shaping how neural interface technology is used and regulated for the public good, and opting citizens out of having their neural data shared as a default.

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