Brain power

Harnessing the electric power of the brain

The brain contains about 100 billion microscopic cells called neurons which together can generate enough electricity to power a low-wattage bulb. Scientists, researchers as well as forward-looking tech companies are investigating ways to use that power to control devices remotely.

This brain computer interface provides direct brain command for a variety of environments, including gaming (Photo:NextMind)

Forget about voice control or facial recognition, one of the hottest gadgets at this year’s CES was a wearable brain-to-computer interface, which enables people to switch on the television using the power of their brains. The gadget, produced by a French startup founded by neuroscientists, fits around the skull very much like a headlamp. The technology used is based on the same principle as electroencephalograms. The brain emits electrical signals and these can be read and then transformed into digital commands for compatible appliances.

Users can trigger commands such as play and stop simply with their brain. Further applications include gaming, with or without VR headsets. One of the keys to being able to control gaming from the brain is the production of more powerful sensors that can capture electric signals better. Another facilitator is technology enabling to interpret brain data in real time. Algorithms are now sufficiently sophisticated to perform such tasks.

Standards for these emerging technologies are essential as they help to save time and money for entrepreneurs who wish to bring new products to market. IEC Technical Committee (TC) 47 publishes key standards for the design, use and reuse of sensors, enabling users to measure their performance, for instance. IEC TC 124 develops standards for wearable devices.

The joint technical committee formed between IEC and ISO for ICT, ISO/ IEC JTC 1, has created Subcommittee (SC) 42 which prepares standards in the field of artificial intelligence. SC 29 deals with the coding of audio, picture, multimedia and hypermedia information, and publishes ISO/IEC 23000-13, an international standard which focuses on the data formats used to provide an AR presentation using 2D/3D multimedia content. IEC TC 110 develops standards for electronic displays. One of its working groups, WG 12, has developed the first edition of IEC 63145-20-20, which establishes the measurement conditions for determining the image quality of eyewear displays.

In China, workers have been wearing helmets equipped with brain sensors which feed information to their employers about their state of mind – angry, depressed or anxious. The technology is used in the military, power supply and telecoms industry, according to a report in the South China Morning Post. The technology is used to increase workers’ productivity. Concerns have been raised about the invasion of workers’ privacy.

Arise and walk

Mind-reading technology is also making headway in medical science. Cervical spinal cord injuries leave about 20% of patients paralysed in all four limbs and is the most severe injury of its kind.

In 2019, a young French man suffering from tetraplegia demonstrated how he could power an exoskeleton with his brain and walk. He initially trained with a computer avatar until he was ready to control the exoskeleton. The technology, which works by recording and decoding brain signals, was trialled for two years by scientists at biomedical research centre Clinatec and the University of Grenoble in France. But unlike the wearable headband launched by the Gaul startup, the brain computer interface, in this case, relied on implants surgically placed under the subject’s skull.

IEC has set up a System Committee on Active Assisted Living (SyC AAL), which focuses on the standardization of AAL products, services and systems to enable independent living for elderly or disabled users. IEC TC 100 develops standards for audio, video and multimedia systems and equipment and set up a technical area (TA) to develop standards relating to AAL wearable electronic devices and technologies, as well as accessibility and user interfaces.

Brain implants versus wearables

The drawback of mind-reading wearables is that the signals emitted by the brain are hindered by people’s skulls and hair which get in the way of the electric waves. Scientists have therefore been focusing on using implants to control items remotely, even if these technologies are invasive as they imply some form of surgery. The BrainGate programme is a long-running multi institution research effort in the US to develop neurotechnology aimed at restoring communication, mobility and independence to people with neurogenerative diseases, limb loss or paralysis. As part of the programme, devices named Utah Arrays were implanted in the brains of several trial patients who were then able to shop online and send phone messages to friends. Other US companies are investing into similar technology, including one of Elon Musk’s enterprises. The focus is on developing the least invasive form of implants, requiring little or no surgery.

In China, a mind-reading brain computer chip named Brain Talker was unveiled by researchers at the University of Tianjin last year. It is expected to be used in a wearable format as it cancels out most of the noise that gets in the way of signals captured with similar wearable devices. “The signals transmitted and processed by the brain are submerged in the background noise. This BC3 chip has the ability to discriminate minor neural electrical signals and decode their information efficiently, which can greatly enhance the speed and accuracy of brain-computer interfaces,” explains Dong Ming, Dean of the Tianjin University Academy of Medical Engineering and Translational Medicine.

Despite the ongoing investment and research, it will take many years for these technologies to hit the consumer market. It is still very early days and we are far from being able to control our immediate environment using our brain waves, let alone be able to read each other’s minds. These technologies demonstrate, however, that our electric brains have a huge potential that is only just beginning to be harnessed.