Electronic systems save lives on a daily basis in traffic. When an accident happens, airbags and belt tensioners respond within fractions of a second, while electronic stability programs repeatedly help ensure that motorists do not come to harm in critical situations. Automaker Nissan aims to make driving even safer and at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas unveiled its Brain-to-Vehicle (B2V) technology. It analyzes the driver’s brain activity and inputs the results into interaction with the vehicle. Movements like handling the steering wheel or braking can thereby be predicted and implemented faster by intelligent assistants – unnoticed by the driver or passengers. And response times can be reduced by up to half a second.
Digital Intelligence to Make People Smarter
That may sound like science fiction but is reality – and anything but a one-off case. All over the world so-called brain-computer interfaces, or BCIs, are currently being developed. They convert brain activity into control signals – to control computers, robots or artificial limbs, for example. Electrical signals from the brain are registered by means of electroencephalography (EEG) or implanted sensors, analyzed by computers and then translated into specific instructions.
Enormous Investment in BCI Research
“The possible uses of this technology are incredible. In the years ahead it will lead to further innovation in our vehicles,” says Lucian Gheorghe, Head of B2V Development at the Nissan Research Center in Japan. By 2022 the global BCI market will grow by at least ten percent a year to over USD 1.7 billion, according to Grand View Research. Small wonder that Tesla founder Elon Musk and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg are also keen to secure a slice of the cake and are investing heavily in BCI research. Musk, for example, had the medical research company Nuralink registered in July 2016 and is working on the development of neural lace technology. The aim is to merge biological and digital intelligence.
BCI: The Only Means of Communication that Doesn’t Use Muscle Power
The idea is not new. In 1999 in Tübingen, Germany, the neuropsychologist Niels Birbaumer discovered a way to enable Locked-In Syndrome patients to write messages letter by letter by means of brain signals. In 2017 he enabled even totally paralyzed patients to answer simple questions with a Yes or No. As part of the EU projects “More Grasp” and “Feel your Reach” scientists are currently trying to analyze finger, hand and arm movements more precisely by means of electrical brainwaves and lay the foundations for a new generation of neuroprostheses. How far this research has progressed was clear at the first Cybathlon, held in Kloten, Switzerland, in 2016. People whose thoughts were the only power they retained moved an avatar around a virtual world by means of their brainwaves.
Why is research of this kind relevant? Because brain-computer interfaces are the only form of communication that requires no muscle power, which is why it especially benefits people with limited or zero mobility. That is why medical research is mainly interested in developing applications of this kind. According to a recent forecast by the market researchers at Grand View Research it is mainly the aging population and the increase in neuroprosthetic diseases that are kick-starting research projects and investments in this field.
Less Stress Thanks to Brain-Computer Interface
“At the same time non-medical fields of application for healthy users are increasingly becoming a focus of interest,” says Carsten Heuer of the Fraunhofer Institute for Technological Trend Analysis (INT). This is partly because more and more people are interested in the idea of self-optimization, or human enhancement, and would like to further perfect existing skills by means of electrode, magnet, chip or sensor implants. “BCI applications as biofeedback systems are, for example, to enable the influencing of one’s personal mood and to help reduce stress,” says Fraunhofer expert Heuer.
BrainCo., a U.S. startup, is pursuing similar approaches. By means of brain-computer interfaces it aims to reduce accident risks in manufacturing operations. A headband measures the worker’s brainwaves, registers weaknesses in concentration and stops the machine if attention slackens. And in Graz, Austria, 18 test persons were recently able to transfer melodies to a sheet of music through nothing but thought. Arguably a side stage of the intensive BCI research for the physically impaired at Graz University of Technology, this nevertheless demonstrates the wide range of possible use cases.
Ethical Guidelines to Prevent Brain Hacking
Further development of BCIs is by no means limited to purely technical aspects. Research and business are also looking into digital ethics. Jointly with leading international neurophysiologists, neurotechnologists and neuroethicists, Tübingen University has drawn up ethical guidelines for the use of BCIs. Their purpose is to ensure data protection, liability and security of brain-controlled systems – aspects that in part have yet to be clarified.
The neuroscientists’ central demands are a veto function to interrupt unintended instructions, protection from unauthorized thought readers, and secure data encryption. It may not yet be a standard practice, scientists say, but they sound a warning note on the risk of so-called brain hacking. Special caution is required with implantable systems, they note. In an extreme case so-called brain jacking, or manipulation of the system to deliberately influence brain functions or behavior, cannot be ruled out, they warn. “Technological progress in the field of brain-computer interfaces is increasing by leaps and bounds,” says neuroethicist Jens Clausen of the International Center for Ethics in the Sciences. So it is “high time legal and ethical framework conditions were defined and implemented.”