Aussie Scientists Say Technology In Our Brains Will Be Commonplace By 2040

An image of a robot arm to illustrate brain interface technology

The far-flung future of 2040 doesn’t seem that distant when you consider that we’re already closer to that year than we are to 2003. In the same amount of time since the first Kill Bill film or School of Rock, Aussie scientists reckon that machine-brain interface technology will be relatively common.

So-called ‘smartbrain’ technology controlled using your own thoughts is expected to be something that we’ll have in our everyday lives thanks to the rapid advancement of technology.

“We have computers all around us. They are in our pockets and travelling everywhere we go, but to think of integrating that directly with the brain to use the technology… it’s pretty amazing,” Assistant Professor Mohit Shivdasani, biomedical engineering expert at UNSW, has said.

Brain-machine Interface technology involves something that has a direct communication pathway between electrical activity in the brain and an external device. This could mean something like a computer or phone you control with your mind or robotic limbs and other body parts.

“We have seen evidence of brain-computer interfaces since 2006 at Brown University when they implanted electrodes in the motor cortex of two paralysed individuals, the part of the brain responsible for encoding thoughts and actions of movement,” Shivdasani said.

“They showed that one particular person was able to control a robotic arm just by thinking about it, while another person was able to move a cursor on a computer screen and read his email”.

In fact, brain-machine interface technology goes right back to the 1970s, with the first device implanted into a human in 1991. Elon Musk’s Neuralink company has been making headlines and drawing attention to this space since it was founded in 2016 with promises of enabling human telepathy.

For most BMI technology, however, the appeal is toward the potential to transform the lives of thousands, if not millions, of people with disabilities. Shivdasani’s own work focuses on improving bionic eyes for vision restoration in blind people. So far, the work is largely experimental, but he predicts that science will cross the threshold into real-world application very soon.

“There is no commercial brain-machine interface that a person can use outside of a laboratory setting, but we’re very close. As technology moves forward, chips get better and smarter, they will be incorporated into medical devices,” he said.

“So we’re not far off from seeing someone walking around with a brain-machine interface outside of a lab.”

In regenerative medicine, BMI is thought to be the next big step, but the biggest barriers right now are cost and the fact that the market is unlikely to be able to sustain the level of investment needed to make the products in the first place. Commercialisation of these products is thought to be just years away and at that point, many of these barriers will need to be overcome.

PhD candidate Claire Bridges, speaking to Shivdasani, predicts that the expansion of wearable technology and the rise of connected health during the pandemic could be useful in fast-tracking much of the BMI industry. It could also boost relevance when it comes to health outcomes.

“Devices like your smartwatch or ring, or even implantable devices like blood glucose monitors or other biometric sensors can change the way clinicians and patients communicate and work together,” Bridges said.

“Devices like these can collect huge amounts of data as they continuously monitor the person wearing them. The use of AI could be a big help with this, analysing these big data sets to identify relevant health information and sending it to a patient’s treating clinicians”.

Health interventions are where BMI has the most pressing application right now however other focuses have also been drawing attention. Neuralink’s implantable brain chips, which are currently getting ready for human trials, are aimed at being able to help people with paralysis or assist in Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s — but they’re also designed to let people control their computers and type with their thoughts alone.

NextMind, a company recently bought by Snapchat’s parent company, Snap Inc, has developed a device that can translate electrical signals from the brain’s visual cortex into digital code. Their next project will see that device upgraded so that users will be able to create anything they can imagine on a digital screen. AI neural networks have also already been used to recreate images and music from brainwaves, again turning thought into digital expression.

In Australia, Melbourne-based company Synchron became the first to implant BMI technology using blood vessels to connect it to the brain. This removes the need for brain surgery when implanting these devices, lowering the barriers to access.

With all of these advances coming thick and fast, it’s no wonder that scientists are already predicting we’ll be able to “record” a person’s entire life experiences via decoded brainwaves soon. There are also theories that “mind control” will one day be possible.

For now, UNSW researchers are focused on the health outcomes, stating that they owe it to Aussies to advance this work.

“On average, Australians spend about 11 years of their life in poor health but with the advances we’re seeing in our biomedical technology, both in terms of physical, actual hands-on implanted treatment or drug delivery or other developing technology, we have a lot of opportunity to improve things,” Bridges said.

Related: “Done the Impossible”: Swiss Scientists 3D Print Functional Robot Hands

Related: Robots Are People, Too: Why Making AI Out of Human Brain Tissue Has Experts Concerned

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