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What are Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCI)?

Adnan Abbas

Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) are computer-based systems. They acquire brain signals, analyze them, and translate them into electronic signals. These signals are then relayed to an output device to perform some desired action. These systems allow humans to control their environment merely by exercising their thoughts.

Until recently, the dream of controlling your environment was limited to the realm of science fiction. However, today there has been a massive leap in the technological advancements of BCI systems. BCI is an exciting and emerging research area. With its ambitious promise of human enablement, the use cases of this technology are immense.

It’s all about the neurons

We know that our brain is a vast network of billions of neurons. Our body produces responses because these neurons communicate information to and from the brain using chemical and electrical signals. The electrical pulses are then eventually sent to the muscles to elicit a response. Researchers are using new technologies to tap into these signals to control machines like the brain controls muscles. Understanding how the brain controls movement led to the development of devices and algorithms that can be implemented on a computer that recognizes these patterns and correspondingly moves an artificial device.

BCI in healthcare

BCI is one of the most promising technologies for assisting and improving communication/control for motor paralysis. It can be used to solve numerous health issues such as cognitive deficits, slowness in processing speed, impaired memory, and movement capability decline among elderly people.

The two types of BCI

There are two types of BCI based on the electrodes used to measure brain activity.

  • Invasive BCI involves the installation of the electrodes directly on the surface of the brain. Some examples of this are BCI based on electrocorticography (ECoG), or intracranial electroencephalography (iEEG)

  • Non-invasive BCI involves the placement of electrodes on the scalp (e.g., EEG-based BCI). It is the most popular type of BCIs used in research today because of its convenience and cost.

BCI today

Big companies such as Elon Musk’s Neuralink and Facebook are developing BCI products. Neuralink is working on adding a digital layer (invasive BCI) above the cortex that would work symbiotically with humans. “The purpose of Neuralink is to create a high-bandwidth interface to the brain such that we can be symbiotic with A.I.”, said Musk in a podcast.

Neuralink's brain-computer interface technology installs electrodes into the brain then uses a chip to communicate with computers outside your skull.

Facebook Reality Labs is working on a non-invasive BCI technology. The program aims to develop a non-invasive, silent speech interface that would allow people to type just by thinking about the words they want to say – a technology that could contribute to the Augmented Reality industry.

An early research kit of a wearable brain-computer interface device, built by Facebook Reality Labs.

Challenges

The BCI technology has been here since the 1970s, and there is still a long way to go before these devices are commercially available. One of the major limitations is that for many BCI applications, the users need to sit still, which is not analogous to real-life situations where things are in motion all the time.

Another challenge the engineers face is distinguishing between the important signals in the brain amidst so much noise. Moreover, since the brain is a highly complex nonlinear system, it is hard to give some order to the chaotic neurons.

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Adnan Abbas
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