Archive for the ‘brain-computer interface’ Category

A new way to plug a human brain into a computer: Via veins

October 31st, 2020
human brain, motherboards, chip and artificial intelligence concept and neural tech and brain computer interfaces.

Enlarge / human brain, motherboards, chip and artificial intelligence concept and neural tech and brain computer interfaces.

The hard part of connecting a gooey, thinking brain to a cold, one-ing and zero-ing computer is getting information through your thick skull—or mine, or anyone’s. The whole point of a skull, after all, is keeping a brain safely separate from [waves hands at everything].

So if that brain isn’t yours, the only way to tell what’s going on inside it is inference. People make very educated guesses based on what that brain tells a body to do—like, if the body makes some noises that you can understand (that’s speech) or moves around in a recognizable way. That’s a problem for people trying to understand how the brain works, and an even bigger problem for people who because of injury or illness can’t move or speak. Sophisticated imaging technologies like functional magnetic resonance can give you some clues. But it’d be great to have something more direct. For decades, technologists have been trying to get brains to interface with computer keyboards or robot arms, to get meat to commune with silicon.

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Musk says that Neuralink implants are close to ready for human testing

August 29th, 2020
Image of a hand holding a small metal disk.

Enlarge / Elon Musk shows the latest version of his company's implants. (credit: Neuralink)

On Friday, Elon Musk gave an update on what's probably his third-most prominent company: Neuralink. Neuralink had been pretty low profile (especially in comparison to Tesla and SpaceX) prior to this time last year, which is when Musk first went into detail about the company's goals and progress. And the goals were striking: a mass-market brain implant that could be installed by a robot via same-day surgery.

With this year's update, little has changed about the overall plan, but plenty of little details have been tweaked in the intervening 12 months. And progress has been made, in that Musk introduced his audience to a group of pigs who were already carrying what he suggested was version 0.9 of his implants, with human testing set to follow shortly.

Designs on the brain

One of the big differences between this year and last is the overall design of the implant and its supporting hardware. The original goal had been to keep the surgery simple in part by minimizing the size of the hole that needed to be made in the skull. This meant a small-diameter implant that wouldn't necessarily be placed near the neurons it interacted with and would require a connection to separate hardware placed behind the ear. All of this added to the level of complication and would necessarily require running some wires across the surface of the brain.

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Posted in Biology, brain-computer interface, Elon Musk, medicine, neuralink, neurobiology, science | Comments (0)

Neural implants plus AI turns sentence-length thoughts to text

March 30th, 2020
Several generations of neural implants from Neuralink.

Enlarge / Several generations of neural implants from Neuralink. (credit: Neuralink)

For people with limited use of their limbs, speech recognition can be critical for their ability to operate a computer. But for many, the same problems that limit limb motion affect the muscles that allow speech. That had made any form of communication a challenge, as physicist Stephen Hawking famously demonstrated. Ideally, we'd like to find a way to get upstream of any physical activity and identify ways of translating nerve impulses to speech.

Brain-computer interfaces were making impressive advances even before Elon Musk decided to get involved, but the problem of brain-to-text wasn't one of its successes. We've been able to recognize speech in the brain for a decade, but the accuracy and speed of this process are quite low. Now, some researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, are suggesting that the problem might be that we weren't thinking about the challenge in terms of the big-picture process of speaking. And they have a brain-to-speech system to back them up.

Lost in translation

Speech is a complicated process, and it's not necessarily obvious where in the process it's best to start. At some point, your brain decides on the meaning it wants conveyed, although that often gets revised as the process continues. Then, word choices have to be made, although once mastered, speech doesn't require conscious thought—even some word choices, like when to use articles and which to use, can be automatic at times. Once chosen, the brain has to organize collections of muscles to actually make the appropriate sounds.

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Posted in brain implants, brain-computer interface, Neuroscience, science, speech recognition | Comments (0)

Elon Musk’s Neuralink: Both an evolution and a plan for radical change

August 13th, 2019

When Elon Musk first started talking about launching a brain-computer interface company, he made a number of comments that set expectations for what that idea might entail. The company, he said, was motivated by his concerns about AI ending up hostile to humans: providing humans with an interface directly into the AI's home turf might prevent hostilities from developing. Musk also suggested that he hoped to avoid any electrodes implanted in the brain, since that might pose a barrier to adoption.

At his recent public launch of the company (since named Neuralink), worries about hostile AIs did get a mention—but only in passing. Instead, we got a detailed technical description of the hardware behind Neuralink's brain-computer interface, which would rely on surgery and implanted hardware. In the process, Neuralink went from something in the realm of science fiction to a company that would be pushing for an aggressive evolution of existing neural-implant hardware.

Those changes in tone and topic are a sign that Musk has been listening to the people he hired to build Neuralink. So, how precisely is Neuralink pushing the envelope on what we can already do in this space? And does it still veer a bit closer to science fiction in some aspects?

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Posted in Biology, brain-computer interface, Elon Musk, Features, neuralink, neurobiology, science | Comments (0)

This is your brain on bungee jumping: Cliff divers take the leap for science

March 1st, 2019
A man bungee jumps from a metal bridge toward the village below him.

Enlarge / A study participant has his brain waves recorded as he leaps from the Europa Bridge near Innsbruck, Austria, into a 630-foot abyss. Thank goodness for that bungee cord. (credit: Soekadar/Charite)

Right before you work up the nerve to leap off a bungee-jumping platform and plummet toward the Earth, there will be a sharp, measurable increase in your brain activity—almost a full second before you make the conscious decision to jump. A new paper in Scientific Reports purports to describe the first time this effect has been measured outside the laboratory.

That telltale signal was dubbed bereitschaftspotential (BP)—or "readiness potential" in English—when it was first observed in 1964 by Luder Deecke and Hans-Helmut Kornhuber. Kornhuber and Deecke had subjects make hundreds of voluntary finger movements while otherwise sitting as still as possible in a Faraday cage. The researchers noticed a shift in the electrical voltage in the brain, as measured by electroencephalography (EEG) electrodes placed along the scalp. The effect is often cited in the ongoing, heated debate over whether or not humans truly have free will.

The German and Austrian authors of the current study opted to have their subjects go bungee jumping in hopes of recording this readiness potential. While bungee jumping has its roots in an ancient ritual on the South Pacific island-nation of Vanuatu as a way to test one's courage, prior studies have shown it results in a sharp rise in concentrations of beta-endorphins right after jumping. (This spike is despite the fact that, the authors note, bungee jumping is statistically less life-threatening than more common activities like bicycling or dancing. Our impulse reactions are not rational.)

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