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September 30, 2019

What are brain-computer interfaces?


It wasn’t that long ago that Elon Musk brought to the attention of the public to the concept of brain-computer interfaces. The introduction of Neuralink, Musk’s new venture, generated a lot of buzz around a new technology with astounding potential. Yet, even as the ability to technologically enhance humans seems something out of a sci-fi novel, its development is older than you might think.

In fact, the tech threads Musk is planning to implant in human brains are just another one of the many developments already at work surrounding brain-computer interfaces. Companies are working with Javascript development services for simple apps that range from recording brain activity in real-time and video games controlled through brain waves to complex software capable of aiding people with paralysis.

There’s still a lot of ground to cover and even more for brain-computer interfaces to become ubiquitous. However, the future where they’ll be in your home is closer than you think. That’s why it’s worth taking a look at what it’s all about.

What are brain-computer interfaces?

Per Wikipedia, a brain-computer interface (BCI) is “a direct communication pathway between an enhanced or wired brain and an external device.” Basically, this means that a human brain is somewhat intertwined with a device (usually a headset but not necessarily) to allow it to control a computer or another device.

That sounds neat, doesn’t it? As you can imagine, getting the technology to actually “read” the mind and let it control a device isn’t precisely easy. It involves the understanding of how the brain works and how a device can use those workings to translate them into instructions for an external device. In other words, a BCI has to track and measure the brain’s electrical activity and provide an output.

This is possible through the combination of two things. First, the way the brain works, with neurons from specific parts of the brain being triggered and sending electric impulses to the terminals to act. Thus, for instance, a device can track the frontal lobe and the Cerebellum to measure impulses that are related to coordinated movements. 

The second thing that makes BCI possible is the existence of technology capable of tracking the neuronal activity and their electrical impulses. You probably already know the most popular method: Electroencephalography (EEG), a common non-invasive technology in the medical field to assess the brain’s activity. However, EEG isn’t the only method. There are other, more invasive ones, like Musk’s threads, that use Electrocorticography (ECog) to track the internal activity from the brain’s inside.

By using a device with one of these tracking methods, experts are able to “understand” what the brain is trying to do, which is later translated into instructions that can be read by an external device. That translation is made through complex software that requires developers fluent in a number of languages, from Python to Javascript development services.

What are the uses for BCIs?

Though the current applications for BCIs are somewhat limited, their potential is undeniable. In fact, research in brain-computer interfaces has been present for quite some time in fields as varied as the medical, smart environment, marketing, educational, entertainment, and security fields. Let’s take a look at some of the devised uses for BCIs in each of them.

Medical field: BCI uses in the healthcare field are among the most developed ones. That’s because these interfaces can help throughout the known medical phases: prevention, detection, diagnosis, rehabilitation, and restoration.

There are tons of examples. For instance, there have been studies about the way smoking and alcohol influence brain waves. By tracking that influence in real-time, BCIs could allow measuring the decrease in the alertness level resulting from the consumption of both alcohol and tobacco and the responding brain parts.

BCIs can also be used to detect brain tumors, epilepsy, dyslexia, sleep disorders, and brain swelling. By using this technology, those issues could be detected early on and better treated with higher success rates.

Finally, BCIs are also providing solutions for disabled people with mobility issues. How? By restoring lost functions or assisting in the patient’s adaptation. Additionally, BCIs could be used in combination with prosthetic limbs to regain normal functionality in paralyzed or unrecoverable patients.

Smart environment field: you probably know about smart environments and, more precisely, about smart houses that use technology to increase more safety, luxury and comfort to our daily lives. Well, that field can also benefit from BCIs as they are expected to cooperate with the Internet of Things to provide unthought-of ways of communication with our surroundings.

A great example is the Brain-computer interface-based Smart Living Environmental Autoadjustment Control System (BSLEACS). This system monitors the user’s brain to adapt the spaces accordingly in terms of temperature, humidity, lighting, and other factors.

The use of BCIs in the smart environment field isn’t restricted to the home. There are also developments designed for the workplace. For instance, there are projects to develop an application to analyze an operator’s cognitive state, his mental fatigue, and stress level. This could prevent accidents, safeguard the operators, and maximize productivity across many industries.

Marketing field: though there aren’t current devices or applications designed for marketing purposes, research suggests that BCIs can (and will surely) be used with them in mind. Thus, studies have pointed out that EEG could be used to evaluate the attention levels generated by commercial and political ads across different media.

That’s not all. BCIs could also provide some insights on the memorization of those ads. The basic idea is to provide tools for expert marketers to understand their audiences and adjust their messages according to their effectiveness, finally overcoming a hurdle that has been keeping marketers awake from time immemorial.

Educational field:  since BCIs provide some kind of access to the human brain, it’s only natural for researchers to take a look into how they can use those interfaces for educational purposes. Thus, BCIs could play a big part in the future of education by aiding the modulation of the brain’s activity. BCIs could help identify the clearness of the studied information for each student, allowing teachers to personalize their interaction with each student depending on the results.

BCIs use in education could go beyond traditional education. Research suggests that this technology could be used to improve cognitive therapeutic approaches. In other words, it could be used to educate the emotional intelligence of the students, helping with the fight against depression and stress.

Entertainment field: we’re living in an age where it seems that everything is used or shaped in the form of entertainment, so you shouldn’t feel surprised to learn that BCIs can be used in this field as well. This is especially true for video games, where the players “only” have to imagine the movements they want to make for their digital avatars to recreate them in the virtual world.

An interesting project in the entertainment field is called Brainball. Though it appears as a simple game where you have to move a ball by relaxing, there’s an essential component underneath. Since the calmer player will be the winner, all the players involved have to learn how to relax if they want to win. Thus, a simple game can teach them how to control their stress while being entertained.

Security field: this is one of the fields that currently worries people the most. Given how much sensible data we have stored or floating around online, developers working in more secure digital systems are looking everywhere - even to BCIs. One of the biggest concepts that are driving BCI-based security is cognitive biometrics, where a device used biosignals to confirm the user’s identity. Since these biosignals can’t be easily hacked or acquired by a third party, the security level of systems using this tech would greatly increase.

Additionally, using electroencephalograms could detect whenever the authorized user is being forced to access, triggering an appropriate response that ultimately safeguards the user. Safety uses for BCI don’t just stop in digital systems. There’s also research that’s taken a look into how the reading of biosignals could help in designing smart driving systems through the use of driving simulators.

Some final considerations

As you can see, brain-computer interfaces are very promising, as they could be used for a multiplicity of purposes. However, before you go running to hire a Javascript development outsourcing company to work on your own BCI, you should take some other things into considerations, especially the ethical concerns that come with technology as delicate as this one.

There’s no doubt that using BCIs to regain the mobility of a paralyzed person is a fantastic thing, even if the way to do so is by invasive methods. But when you consider BCIs for more “mundane” uses, the benefits start to blur. One thing is using a BCI to diagnose a potential disease but using it just to play a video game is something way different.

There’s a long way before we can fully understand what using BCIs can do to the way we think - and that’s without considering the more invasive methods that insert chips in our brains. Since we’re talking about devices interacting directly with our bodies, it’s important to comprehend the potential implications before jumping on board.

BCIs supporters argue that, in a world where technologies like Artificial Intelligence and Machine learning are starting to become the norm, technological enhancements like these BCIs could help us better interact with the intelligent machines. And while that thought might hold some truth to it, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ignore the potential risks that come with it all.

As the general public it’s only beginning to learn about BCIs, the tasks ahead are numerous. We need to keep researching BCIs, that’s certain, but also improve our understanding of them before finally deciding how and when this technology can help us truly improve o

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