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What are neurointerfaces and why their use is so controversial

Photo: neuralink.com

Photo: neuralink.com

Scientists and businessmen have long been trying to create neurointerfaces—technologies for the interaction of the human brain and a computer. However, these developments are fraught with many challenges, including ethical ones.

Kernel helmet: reading minds for $50,000

In mid-June, Kernel announced that a mind-reading helmet of its own design is ready. The company plans to ship these helmets to partners in the near future. Private companies and research laboratories are among them. The cost of the helmet is $50,000, its weight is only 900 grams. The helmet is equipped with a large number of sensors, and due to them it can read and analyze electrical impulses and brain blood flow. This allows one to understand how a person wearing a helmet reacts to stimuli from the outside world. The helmet transfers the received data to the computer.

Kernel presented two models of helmets. The first modification, called Flow, can assess the subject's attention and emotional state. The second model, called Flux, will investigate only the functioning of the brain, its ability to learn and its response to external information. Commercial partner companies that have pre-ordered Kernel will study the brain's response to a variety of products. Scientists are interested in other aspects, including the work of a damaged brain, for example, after a stroke or injury, features of brain aging, or how it functions in people with, for example, Parkinson's disease. Researchers are also interested in how the brain works during experiences or during certain practices, such as meditation.

The technology used by the Kernel helmet creators has been around for years. However, the equipment required for its operation takes up a lot of space. Kernel is the first compact implementation of a non-invasive neurointerface that enables the interaction between a computer and the brain without implanting additional devices. The founder of the project emphasizes that the form factor of the device allows a person to move around in everyday conditions, and that makes it possible to record brain activity in the process of interaction of the helmet owner with the outside world.

Bryan Johnson, founder of Kernel, plans to reduce the helmet cost to the price of an average smartphone by 2030 and make it so that any American family can buy it. No wonder the company's slogan is "Know thyself", and its mission is to improve the emotional and psychological state of ordinary people.

What are neurointerfaces and how they relate to the idea of the Kernel helmet

Talking about how Kernel was created, its founder mentions that during the development of the device he discussed partnerships with Elon Musk, in particular with his company Neuralink Corp. Cooperation did not work out, and each of the entrepreneurs began to move in their own direction.

Bryan Johnson wants to understand how the brain works in order to know more about diseases, brain conditions, emotions, and reactions, and that will improve a person's condition. The goal of Elon Musk and his project Neuralink Corp is to develop a "purely" neurointerface for computer control.

However, both the Kernel helmet and the Elon Musk project, as well as the neurointerface, in principle, must solve the initial task for successful work—to read out brain impulses. It's just that each of these devices uses the received data differently.

So, a neurointerface is a system exchanging information between the brain and another device. In some cases, the neurointerface simply transmits data to an external device (like a Kernel helmet), but sometimes the system allows one to control another device, such as a computer program or special devices or objects, such as characters in computer games.

Elon Musk and Neuralink Corp., or Make the monkey play video games

Elon Musk last year showed the first versions of a two-way neurointerface—one that not only transmits brain signals to an external device, but that is also able to perceive these signals and use them, for example, to control external devices or computer programs.

Already in April of this year, Musk demonstrated the operation of a neurointerface using the example of a chip implanted in a monkey's brain and capable of controlling a computer game with its mind.

The global goal of this Neuralink Corp. development is to provide paralized people with the ability to control devices. And in the future, Elon Musk does not rule out that the neurointerface will also help ordinary people control gadgets, including electric vehicles.

Neurointerfaces: Facebook version

The social network Facebook has been studying the brain for a long time and is developing a technology for scanning neurons for its further use for various purposes. Back in 2017, information appeared that Facebook is creating its own neurointerface. Its task was to enter commands without a keyboard and without using hands. In other words, Facebook wanted users to publish their posts on social networks that would be read directly from the brain.

From time to time, information about these developments of the social network appeared both on its blog and in the media: for example, the company planned to create a sensor that would transform people's thoughts not only in posts on social networks, but also into other actions necessary, for example, to control video games characters.

The first real Facebook product capable of reading brain signals was a bracelet announced this spring: it can perceive some brain signals related to finger movements and control objects in augmented reality.

So far, the Facebook bracelet understands just a few movements. However, the company believes that in the future it will be smarter and be able to execute more commands.

The plans of the bracelet creators are to teach the device to perceive the movements of a person's fingers when he is typing on a virtual invisible keyboard. The developers are confident that this system will allow people to type on a virtual keyboard faster than on a usual one.

So far, the presented development is very far from the company's previous plans. However, it suggests that the social network has focused on one, very narrow, area of neurointerface and their use in augmented reality.

The previous Facebook announcements in the field of neurointerface, as well as the announcement of creating smart glasses with recognition functionality, caused an avalanche of criticism from human rights activists and privacy advocates confident that a company that already knows too much about its users should not literally creep into their brain.

Who needs neurointerface and where can they be used?

Bryan Johnson studies the brain to improve mental health and emotional state. The goals of Elon Musk's projects are to create technologies for controlling gadgets using the mind. It is the second option for using neurointerfaces that is most in demand today, because it will allow people with injuries or neurological problems to significantly improve their quality of life.

The ideas that Facebook tried to implement demonstrate another area of using neurointerfaces—entertainment, including in virtual and augmented realities.

Elon Musk's idea of controlling gadgets with the mind sounds so far like something very fantastic, but such use of interfaces cannot be ruled out, albeit in the distant future.

Neurointerfaces problems—ethical and technological

The massive use of neurointerfaces brings with it many complexities and challenges, both ethical and technological, related to the implementation of the systems.

If the Kernel helmet is a non-invasive solution (you don't need to implant chips in the human body for it to work), then the prototype of the product presented by Elon Musk is an invasive technology. It is difficult to predict what the consequences of its long-term use will be, that is, what will happen to a person who has had an implanted chip in his head for more than 20 years. In addition, the risk of brain damage during the implantation of such an implant cannot be ruled out.

Another kind of difficulty is all sorts of technical problems: organizing the power consumption of implanted chips, protecting devices from hacking, and storing brain activity data.

There are even more ethical challenges posed by this technology. First of all, it is about using the obtained data and manipulating a person whose brain activity is read by the device. In this case, manipulations with the help of content on social networks look like babbling compared to how it will be possible to influence the decisions of people—carriers of the neurointerface.

It is for this reason that Facebook's attempts to create its own neurointerface provoke protests. Privacy advocates and other experts warn that one has to be very careful developing neurointerfaces so that the narratives of the TV series Black Mirror do not become commonplace in our life.

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