Noninvasive Neurotechnologies of the Future
Updated: Dec 11, 2021
by Emily Oh
Although brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) have recently opened up a popular field of research, the concept is not new to the world. University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) computer scientist Jacques J. Vidal first coined the term “brain-computer interface” in the early 1970s, and researchers have been testing brain implants on patients for the past 15 years. Matthew Nagle, a patient paralyzed from the neck down, was the first to use a BCI after receiving a computer implant in his cortex back in 2004. The various BCIs that exist today are mostly used to allow disabled patients to communicate using brain activity to control external devices.
BCIs perform well when controlling robotic devices using signals obtained from brain implants, whereas their noninvasive, external sensing counterparts typically receive weaker signals, leading to lower resolution and less precise control over devices. However, implants require a substantial amount of medical and surgical expertise to correctly install and operate, not to mention their cost and potential risks for subjects. As such, their use has been limited to just a few clinical cases.
Thankfully, there have been several breakthroughs in the field of noninvasive robotic device
control. Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) working in collaboration with the
University of Minnesota (UM) developed the first non invasively mind-controlled robotic arm
with the ability to continuously track a computer cursor this June. Through novel sensing and
machine learning techniques, CMU researchers were able to access signals deep within the brain and achieve high resolution of control over a robotic limb without implants.
Although BCIs are traditionally used for restoring sensory and motor skills or treating
neurological disorders, they may serve other purposes in the near future. Working to enable
technology for diverse national security applications, such as the control of unmanned vehicles, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) awarded funding to six organizations to support Next-Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology (N3) programs this May. Whereas the most effective, state-of-the-art BCIs require surgery to implant electrodes into the brain, N3 technology, like CMU’s robotic limbs, would not require surgery and be man-portable, thus making the technology accessible to a wider population of potential users.
Despite the abundance of noninvasive neurotechnologies, most do not offer the portability and precision required for advanced applications in real-world settings yet. However, these curious intersections between humans and computers yield promise in developing and revolutionizing technology involved in a range of fields, whether it be a robotic limb or an autonomous drone.