Imagine having the ability of solving equations as fast as computers, being able to play video games using your brain or giving sensory control to disabled people. Sounds imaginary right. Not any more. BCI’s or Brain computer interface promises to give us the ability of computers. The future is now!
How does it work?
Our brain is nothing but collection of neurons which transmit information in the form of electric impulses. Different sections of the brain perform different tasks with different impulses. The principle is pretty simple. We just have to read the impulses produced by the brain and convert it into machine readable form (0s and 1s) to receive input from the brain and to transmit signals to the brain.
The above mechanism is achieved by inserting electrodes into the brain which are smaller than the diameter of human hair. These Electrodes receive input from the brain in the form of impulses which are transmitted to a mini computer situated just outside the brain which performs the task. Currently the mechanism is being experimented to treat Parkinson’s (a neurological disorder) and paralysis. It is also being used to make prosthetic arms and legs easier to use.
Challenges to the technology:
There are multiple challenges. Firstly, it is difficult to insert electrodes into the brain as they have to be small enough to prevent any damage to the brain. Specialized robots are required top perform the task as it is difficult for surgeons to perform it manually. The process of approval for human trials of the technology is pretty tedious and involves multiple procedures and safety standards checks. Overall, we don’t have an in depth understanding of the brain and its functions. Therefore, it is a difficult task to build something to simulate it to cause minimal damage. We also need to collect huge amount of data to understand the different signals and impulses crated by the brain.
How far are we from achieving computer like capabilities?
brain computer interfaces are not a new idea and have been existing since the 1970’s. Multiple scientists are researching on different methods, the most efficient being insertion of electrodes. Other methods like electroencephalogram-based (EEG) brain-computer interfaces (BCI) which measure electrical activity and does not require insertion of electrodes in the brain. They have limited applications as signals fade away outside the skull. The research and development have now taken pace with billionaire entrepreneur and visionary Elon Musk and his company Neuralink. Neuralink aims at developing an efficient brain implantable computer to restore sensory and motor functions of the body and to treat neurological disorders. Overall we are still a few decades away for the technology to be commercially available.