By Alberto Romero | 25 March 2021
While physics is considered the queen of twentieth-century science, experts argue that the science of the mind will be the queen of the 21st century.
“The 21st century will be the great century of the science of the mind.” – Eduard Punset, writer and scientific popularizer
“The 21st century will be the century of the brain, the mind, and of general intelligence.” – Bryan Johnson, Kernel CEO
“In the current century one of our major challenges is to elucidate how the brain works.” – Various Authors
Since the 50s, we’ve seen huge advancements in the understanding of the brain and the mind. The two main fields of study are artificial intelligence (AI) and neuroscience.
You all are familiar with the field of AI. The revolution of neural networks and deep learning, starting in 2012, has caused a great impact on the scientific and technological realms. The terms AI, machine learning and deep learning are increasingly popular and touch now every bit of our lives.
The AI vanguard is aiming at building machines that solve specific problems better than we do. And it’s perfectly fine unless machines get so good at doing what we do that we aren’t needed anymore, as has been happening at an increased rate last decades.
Those who didn’t want to build machines preferred to first understand what we are exactly. That’s what neuroscience is about. We don’t know how the mind works or what consciousness is and those mysteries make this field a focus of interest.
Neurotechnology emerges from both AI and neuroscience. It applies what we know about the brain to design and build machines that help us further drive our understanding of the brain, cure brain illnesses or even enhance ourselves.
You can understand neurotechnology as a combination of AI and neuroscience. AI is trying to emulate our perceptual, motor, and cognitive capacities. Neuroscience is trying to make sense of why and how we use those capacities.
The purpose of neurotechnology is to combine both to create machines that’ll repair and improve our brains and minds in new unimaginable ways.
Here I’ll talk about 7 real-life neurotechnology applications that’ll make you feel the future is already here.
The power to move things with the mind
One of the most popular branches of neurotech is brain-computer interfaces (BCIs). BCIs allow us to control electronic devices just by thinking. They can be used to control a computer, a robotic arm, a wheelchair, a drone, play games, etc.
These devices mainly consist of an EEG sensor that captures brain activity. Then, the data is processed by AI models to extract the main features. Finally, the features are matched with specific commands to move an object.
For instance, a person controlling a drone could think about closing his right hand into a fist to make the drone go to the right. Or it could think about closing both hands to make it go up. Here’s an example from Bin He, professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Minnesota:
In 2004, Matthew Nagle who was paralyzed from neck down, became the first person to ever use a BCI:
“I can’t put it into words. It’s just – I use my brain. I just thought it. I said, “Cursor go up to the top right.” And it did, and now I can control it all over the screen. It will give me a sense of independence.”
BCIs will bring mental control from science-fiction to reality.
Where the mind meets the physical and the digital
In February 2021, the startup Cognixion presented their device Cognixion ONE. They combined the power of BCIs with the possibilities of augmented reality (AR). It could not only allow people with disabilities to interact with the real world, but also with the digital world.
In an editorial article for Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, researchers pointed out the potential of mixing both technologies:
“BCIs, together with AR/VR, offer the possibility for immersive scenarios through induced illusions of an artificially perceived reality that can be utilized not only in basic BCI research but also in many fields of application.”
In their blog, Cognixion talked about the potential benefits of combining BCIs and AR for people with severe motor and speech disabilities.
“We enable users to simultaneously interact with their physical environment and the overlaid digital world. As they select an object in AR to indicate their intended speech, we personalize communication options according to the user’s current context and adapt the AR system based on changing environments.”
“Mixed Reality is the next big evolution of mobile computing.”
– Andreas Forsland, Cognixion CEO
The brain needs to get excited to learn
In 2010, a group of scientists at MIT tested the neural activity of a university student for 24 hours during a week. They found the same levels of activity when he was attending his lectures as when he was watching TV; almost none. These results reveal a neural justification for the inefficiency of traditional educational models.
This result opened the door for new trends aiming at transforming the educational model. One of the main approaches is what’s called neurodidactics. Education expert José Ramón Gamo explains:
“Before you could only observe the behavior of students, but now, thanks to neuroimaging machines, we can see brain activity while they do tasks.”
With this information, pedagogues can find out which methods are more effective. In particular, neurodidactics propose to combine traditional lectures with interactive classes supported with visuals and collaborative work.
Neurodidactics could revolutionize education in the next decades.
The power to revolutionize psychiatry
In January 2021, Kernel, a pioneer neurotech company partnered with Cybin, a life sciences and biotech company. They want to combine the power of state-of-the-art brain-recording technology – Kernel Flow – with the promise of psychedelic therapy.
On the one hand, Kernel has made it possible to transform “expensive, room-sized equipment” into a helmet-like device that provides data from brain activity of the highest quality. Cybin, on the other hand, is aiming at revolutionizing mental healthcare through the commercialization of psychedelic therapeutics. Will Yakowicz, talked about this in an article at Forbes:
“[Cybin] plans to bring to market an a dissolvable oral strip dosed with psilocybin, the psychedelic compound found in “magic mushrooms,” to help treat major depressive disorder when coupled with therapy.”
Together, Kernel and Cybin may revolutionize the field of psychiatry. In the words of Cybin CEO, Doug Drysdale:
“The ability to collect quantitative data from our sponsored drug development programs with Kernel’s Flow is potentially game-changing in terms of our ability to measure where psychedelics work in the brain in real-time, and how we ultimately design our future therapeutics.”
The blind future of justice
Can neuroscience and technology shape the future of criminal and civil law? Could we blindly trust neuroscience to impart justice for us?
Owen Jones, director of the National Research Network on Law and Neuroscience (The Network), divides the topic into three categories: Detecting lies and memories, distinguishing levels of culpability, deciding appropriate punishment.
Robert J. Szczerba, CEO of X Tech Ventures, reviewed Jones’ work in an article at Forbes. He talked about the questions that arise for each category:
- Detecting lies and memories. How can neuroscience detect truth? How could criminals train themselves to trick these methods? Could emotions or mental states influence the ability to recall a memory? Can neural activity reveal if a person recognizes a face?
- Distinguishing levels of culpability. How can mental illness or brain injury affect culpability? Can neuroscience tell us if the person was sleepy, upset, or intoxicated? Can neural activity reveal if the suspect was aware of the risk or the fact that he/she was committing an illicit act?
- Deciding an appropriate punishment. “How do age, race, and sex of defendants affect people’s assessments of their mental state and of the suitable punishment? How do people take into account what a defendant knew when committing an illegal act, and how is that reflected in brain activity?”
“Seeking the truth is at once the most fundamental and the most difficult task of the criminal justice system.”
– Owen Jones
Amanda Pustilnik, professor of law at the University of Maryland School of Law, says that neurotechnology could challenge existing constitutional doctrines:
“These technologies can identify directly from brain waves whether a person is familiar with a stimulus like a face or a weapon, can model blood flow in the brain to indicate whether a person is lying, and can even interfere with brain processes themselves via high-powered magnets to cause a person to be less likely to lie to an investigator.”
However, there is a dystopian version of this. It reminds me of Steven Spielberg’s film Minority Report. In the film, John Anderton (played by Tom Cruise) is a policeman that works in a special division, called pre-crime, in charge of stopping criminals before they committed a crime.
Although it’s far from where we are now, this dystopian world loosely resembles what the future of neurotechnology applied to Law could look like. We’ll have to make sure it doesn’t happen.
The brain can learn by looking at itself
Neurofeedback techniques are applied to treat deregulation in the brain: anxiety and depression, behavior disorders, attention deficits, Autistic spectrum, or cerebral palsy. The basic idea consists of an EEG system that captures brainwave activity to then send it to a computer that processes it and extracts relevant information.
In a typical experiment, the subject is shown the info in the form of a video game. The person then attempts to reshape the waves to improve performance by playing the game with his brain alone. Dr. Siegfried Othmer, Chief Scientist of the EEG Institute, states the utility of this technique:
“Our intellectual abilities and emotional resources can be considerably enhanced with neurofeedback training.”
An advanced version of this technique is called decoded neurofeedback. The main difference is that fMRI is used instead of EEG. Researchers have found that the “way of thinking” of subjects changes accordingly to the improvement in the neural activity patterns without them being aware of what was to be learned. Neurofeedback could change training and rehabilitation entirely.
People with spinal cord injury can walk again
In 2018, Nature published a breakthrough study in the field of neural recovery. Three participants – all with spinal cord injury – were unable to walk completely before the experiment. After the treatment, they were able to walk with assistance.
The injury hindered brain-leg communication for the subjects so researchers implanted a technology called epidural electrical stimulation to help amplify the brain signal to the legs, using a few intact nerves.
Interestingly, after 5 months of rehabilitation, even when the system was turned off, the patients were still able to walk. These results resonate with the famous phrase of Neuropsychologist Donald Hebb:
“Neurons that fire together, wire together.”
Neural pathways are formed by repetition.
Neurotechnology will change our lives. It’ll revolutionize healthcare and rehabilitation, psychiatry and psychology, human interaction, law, and education.
However, it’ll also create possibilities for mental control of the masses, jeopardize cognitive privacy or, as in Minority Report, create a dystopian future in which we are blindly trusting something we don’t understand.
It’s in our hands to aim for the former scenarios and try to use the knowledge of the most complex thing in the universe to positively impact the quality of life and well-being of everyone.
I’ll finish with a fantastic quote from professor Stanley B. Prusiner:
“Neuroscience is by far the most exciting branch of science because the brain is the most fascinating object in the universe. Every human brain is different – the brain makes each human unique and defines who he or she is.”
Reprinted with permission from the author.
Brain Gate – Breakthrough in Brain-To-Computer Interfaces
Thought control of robotic arms using the BrainGate system
Providing a Sense of Touch through a Brain-Machine Interface
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