A brain-computer interface (BCI) is a direct link between the human brain and an external computer. The technology harnesses electrical signals produced by the brain. A device amplifies these signals and sends them to a piece of software that figures out how they should control the computer.
It sounds effortless, doesn’t it? But, naturally, there’s much more to it than that.
How does the Brain Produce Electrical Signals?
The human brain is made up of nonconducting tissue, so how is it able to generate electrical signals? It does this through complex chemical reactions that take place when thoughts are produced. Ions float in and around the neurons of the brain in a state of delicate equilibrium. When thoughts and impulses are created, the balance changes, and the movement of ions to restore it manifests as electrical signals.
How does the Brain Control an External Computer?
To control a computer, you need to detect the electrical signals from the brain, amplify them, and then interpret these into corresponding computer actions. Electroencephalogram (EEG) is a reasonably common technology used by neurologists to monitor the electrical activity of a brain. EEG is the easiest and least invasive way to record a brain’s electrical output.
The signals are then passed on to the BCI software, which makes use of machine learning (ML) algorithms that have been trained to recognize EEG readings associated with specific emotions and actions. The algorithms tag the EEG data with the corresponding commands to control the computer, and the BCI carries out these commands.
Using this system, you can move the computer’s cursor to the left or right by merely thinking about moving left or moving right.
Why is a Brain-Computer Interface Useful?
Using a BCI is a relatively new and unexplored field. As people get to understand better how it works, they are discovering more useful ways to employ the technology. One of the most attractive prospects is using it to control devices remotely. To date, there have been successful attempts at using BCI to control robots in hostile environments.
It is also helping us understand the detailed workings of the brain, mainly how biological neural networks function in real-time. BCI development can have many implications in artificial intelligence (AI) and artificial neural network research and development.
Researchers are also excited about the prospects of using BCI to improve the lives of people who have lost the use of their limbs. The late celebrated physicist Stephen Hawking was able to communicate his brilliant ideas by using a device that detected the movement of his cheeks and synthesized his speech. A BCI would have tapped directly into his brain and given him not just the ability to speak, but also to control prosthetic devices and computers.
Perhaps one of the most awaited developments is using BCI to control videogames. The technology promises to take virtual reality (VR) video gameplay to a whole new level for EEG-wired players.
What are the Barriers to the Development of Brain-Computer Interfaces?
The prospects of using BCI are enormous, and we may not even understand the extent of its full potential. But some issues are blocking progress in this field. Check out this short video to learn about some of the possibilities and the challenges facing BCIs:
While EEG is noninvasive, some advanced applications may require implanted sensors that directly interface with neurons. The technology to do this, however, is not yet fully developed, and many technical issues need to be resolved to advance to this level.
Some people are also objecting to BCI use based on ethical grounds. They fear that if the human brain can be connected to a machine, then it may not take long until others can hack into and take control of someone else’s mind.