Brain-Controlled Interface (BCI) technology—or technology that allows us to control our devices with our minds—is very promising. In fact, tech giants and VCs are pouring millions of dollars into it. Facebook is so interested in the technology that, in 2019, it spent between $500M to $1B to acquire CTRL-labs, a company that specializes in allowing humans to control computers using their brains. A number of companies have BCI innovations in the fundamental and lab stages. The question is, will it work?
Facebook seems to think so. Less than a year-and-a-half after it inked the deal with CTRL-labs, the company introduced a wristband product powered by EMG (Electromyography) which comes from the muscles in the wrist that are controlled by the brain. According to Facebook Reality Labs, the wristband uses sensors to translate the electrical motor nerve signals that move through the wrist to the hand into digital commands that could control other devices. The company hopes this will allow users to control their forthcoming augmented reality glasses with minimal hand movement.
But, BCI technology is very much in its infancy. Many technologists imagine a world where typing and texting no longer happen. They paint a picture of a world where technology is seamlessly integrated into our daily lives and all we have to do is to think about what we want or need and it will occur. If it sounds too good to be true, that’s because it almost is—-at least for now.
In order for any new product to work in the mass market, it must be a good fit, be high-quality and operate with natural human behavior. The existing products in the market do not fit the basic requirements yet.
Currently, there are three main BCI technologies available: invasive, non-invasive electrical (EEG) and near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS).
Invasive technologies, such as Elon Musk’s Neuralink, require implanting electrodes in the brain. The solution is very expensive and requires a complex surgery. It has been tested on fewer than 50 severely disabled people in the last decade and, while it shows potential, it is years from being a technology that most people would or could opt for.
Non-invasive electrical (EEG)
This technology has been researched for the past 40 years yet, despite many companies working on it, we are no closer today than we were decades ago. It requires electrodes and good electric contact with the scalp. The technology sees fundamental problems with recording brain signals, the process is complex and it is messy because it requires a conductive gel in the hair for good contact.
Near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS)
This is the most viable technology in my opinion. While it currently requires expensive equipment, it will come down over time. The skin and bone have transparency to near-infrared light offering non-invasive ways to understand and even tap into the functionality of the brain. Los Angeles-based Kernel, founded by entrepreneur and venture capitalist, Bryan Johnson, leverages a cap that looks similar to a bike helmet. It uses a pulsed laser to capture information about photons, including the depth reached by them within the brain. One day the company envisions using its device as a smart assistant to suggest entertainment or food choices based on brain activity.
BCI technology is certainly one of the biggest challenge scientists have faced for a longtime, yet it is exciting for a number of reasons. The most obvious might be as an assistive technology for individuals who have lost use of body parts such as hands, arms or legs, or have a health condition. New technology could let these individuals operate robotic limbs or even regain control over paralyzed body parts.
The mass market could also benefit from technology that lets us go “hands-free.” In the next few years, augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) glasses are going to be cost effective and readily available. The more our AR/VR devices becomes ubiquitous, the less we will want to use our hands to operate them. Unfortunately, BCI technology to control those glasses with our minds is years away. None of the existing solutions are easily adaptable to human behavior. Facebook’s wristband may be more acceptable than wearing a helmet to move a cursor on a computer screen, but we are still in the very early stages of BCI.
I truly believe once BCI is matured and integrated in our daily lives, it will revolutionize the world just like the invention of the microchip. It will open new doors for consumers who need technology to survive daily life or for those who simply strive for the next level of perfection. It is thrilling. It is game changing.
Yet the realist in me believes the building of viable technology and the associated products for it will take time and require significant scientific innovations. BCI is the ultimate solution, but the roadmap to get there will span multiple decades. In the meantime, the gap between the future and what currently exists presents a great opportunity for other hands-free solutions.