Neural Engineering: Interfaces and the Bluring of Human/Machine


Neuroelectronics is already here. Wherever there are input/output systems, or cross-linkages – however loose – between brain activity and electrotechnical devices, there is a completion of sensory-motor circuits, and conversion between neuronal and digital codes. – Ccru: Writings 1997-2003

The Neural Interfaces Conference is the go to place for discovering the technologies that will emerge within that gray area between humans and machines as we begin to enter the great transition. Neural interfaces are systems operating at the intersection of the nervous system and an internal or external device. Neural interfaces include neural prosthetics, which are artificial extensions to the body that restore or supplement function of the nervous system lost during disease or injury, and implantable neural stimulators that provide therapy. Neural interfaces are used to allow disabled individuals the ability to control their own bodies and lead fuller and more productive lives.

The way humans interact with computers has evolved from punch cards, to the keyboard and mouse, to much more sophisticated user interfaces, but the kinds of connections imagined in movies like The Matrix, Avatar or Pacific Rim still seem like science fiction. Polina Anikeeva is working to turn fiction into fact, not to help with virtual reality technology, but to help amputees restore full functionality to prosthetic limbs – not just to control the muscles, but to be able to feel and touch again. To achieve this, you need the precision of a virtuoso pianist to connect neural tissue to the prosthetic limb. The key to this precision is finding the right materials.

Dr. Polina Anikeeva is an assistant professor of Materials Science and Engineering at MIT and a principle investigator of the Bioelectronics group. Her research lies in the field of neuroprosthetics and brain-machine interfaces. Together with her group she explores optoelectronic, fiber-based and magnetic approaches to minimally invasive neural interrogation. Her group was first to demonstrate multifunctional flexible fibers for simultaneous optical stimulation, electrical recording and drug delivery in the brain and spinal cord, as well as magnetic nanomaterials for wireless magnetic deep brain stimulation. Her work at the interface of materials science and neurobiology earned a number of junior faculty awards including NSF CAREER and DARPA Young Faculty Award and was recently featured across popular press. She received her doctoral degree in Materials Science from MIT. Her youtube TED talk:

As Ramez Naam author of Nexus trilogy tells us neural implants could accomplish things no external interface could: Virtual and augmented reality with all 5 senses (or more); augmentation of human memory, attention, and learning speed; even multi-sense telepathy — sharing what we see, hear, touch, and even perhaps what we think and feel with others.

As he reports DARPA has now used the same technology to put a paralyzed woman in direct mental control of an F-35 simulator. And in animals, the technology has been used in the opposite direction, directly inputting touch into the brain. Children children born deaf and without an auditory nerve have had sound sent electronically straight into their brains.

Yet, as he admits we’re only at the beginning. The technology is primitive. It sucks. But it’s getting better year by year:

Now, let me be clear. All of these systems, for lack of a better word, suck. They’re crude. They’re clunky. They’re low resolution. That is, most fundamentally, because they have such low-bandwidth connections to the human brain. Your brain has roughly 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion neural connections, or synapses. An iPhone 6’s A8 chip has 2 billion transistors. (Though, let’s be clear, a transistor is not anywhere near the complexity of a single synapse in the brain.)

The second barrier to brain interfaces is that getting even 256 channels in generally requires invasive brain surgery, with its costs, healing time, and the very real risk that something will go wrong. That’s a huge impediment, making neural interfaces only viable for people who have a huge amount to gain, such as those who’ve been paralyzed or suffered brain damage.

Read the rest of his article The Ultimate Interface: Your Brain

Already state of the art prosthesis allow thought to interact with computers. Brain-controlled prostheses sample a few hundred neurons to estimate motor commands that involve millions of neurons. Sampling errors can reduce the precision and speed of thought-controlled keypads. A new technique can analyze this sample and make dozens of corrective adjustments in the blink of an eye to make thought-controlled cursors more precise.

Of course like most of these new science and engineering R & D programs they are in infancy. The key is the human brain itself. At the moment they are uncovering the actual neuronal activity step by step. As one scientist states: “Brain-controlled prostheses will lead to a substantial improvement in quality of life,” Shenoy said. “The speed and accuracy demonstrated in this prosthesis results from years of basic neuroscience research and from combining these scientific discoveries with the principled design of mathematical control algorithms.”

Other engineers have already succeeded with experimental neural devices for controlling robots. Even ones for controlling exoskeletons for crippled victims. A good background study of direct neural interface history. Nanotechnology that can read/write to individual neurons. Neural stimulation devices.


DARPA and the Obama Brain initiative giving grants. The 3 NIH-supported research projects now receiving the DARPA grants are focused on a wireless device that can be implanted directly into muscles to control prostheses rather than through electrodes placed on the skin; a tiny bundle of microelectrodes implanted in peripheral nerves to control muscle movement; and an electrode nerve cuff that allows the user of a prosthesis to experience pressure sensation.

DARPA, on the back of the US government’s BRAIN program, has begun the development of tiny electronic implants that interface directly with your nervous system and can directly control and regulate many different diseases and chronic conditions, such as arthritis, PTSD, inflammatory bowel diseases (Crohn’s disease), and depression. The program, called ElectRx (pronounced ‘electrics’), ultimately aims to replace medication with “closed-loop” neural implants, which constantly assess the state of your health, and then provide the necessary nerve stimulation to keep your various organs and biological systems functioning properly. The work is primarily being carried out with US soldiers and veterans in mind, but the technology will certainly percolate down to civilians as well.

Another $70 million program by DARPA grant will try to develop brain implants able to regulate emotions in the mentally ill.

Military Enhancement with BCIs

From Brain-computer Interfaces: Military, Neurosurgical, and Ethical Perspective:

Alongside therapeutic interventions, rapid advances in BCI technologies will also create opportunities for neurosurgeons to participate in improving military training and operations, particularly through combat performance modification and optimization. In fact, the use of neuroscientific approaches for achieving these goals is already an evolving area of research. During the last decade, the Pentagon’s DARPA launched the “Advanced Speech Encoding Program” to develop nonacoustic sensors for speech encoding in acoustically hostile environments, such as inside of a military vehicle or an urban environment. The DARPA division is currently involved in a program called “Silent Talk” that aims to develop user-to-user communication on the battlefield through EEG signals of “intended speech,” thereby eliminating the need for any vocalization or body gestures. Such capabilities will be of particular benefit in reconnaissance and special operations settings, and successful applications of silent speech interfaces have already been reported.

Enhancements of soldiers’ perception and control of vehicles or heavy machinery with BCIs are also within the realm of possibilities. A recent DARPA proposal for a “Cognitive Technology Threat Warning System” includes a requirement for operator-trained high-resolution BCI binoculars that can quickly respond to a subconsciously detected target or a threat. Such biological vision devices can have detection ranges of up to 10 km against dismounts and vehicles, and can expand soldiers’ field of view to 120°. Thus, future generations of auditory and visual neuroprostheses may allow soldiers to perform better during combat situations through automated detection and interpretation capabilities. The concept of telepresence, in which a soldier is physically present at a base or concealed location, but has the ability to sense and interact in a removed, real-world location through a mobile BCI device, is also being actively investigated and has even been projected to be available in limited applications by 2015. These expectations are substantiated by recent advances in the operation of robots using EEG signals, such that control of cargo-loading machines, demolition robots, or unmanned aerial vehicles, as enabled by BCIs, is more than a progressive goal; it is also a realistic expectation. In its earliest stages, this type of BCI could be used in manned vehicles, vessels, and aircraft to make their operation more efficient by reducing the need for manual input of key functions as required by today’s navigation and weapons deployment protocols.

The ethical considerations of employing BCIs for performance modification depend largely on the type of intervention required to implement the device. Because a majority of unclassified DARPA projects are based on noninvasive BCIs, use of such platforms will not be associated with additional risks and can be viewed in a similar manner as the use of night-vision goggles or radiofrequency signals. However, the application of invasive or partially invasive BCIs in soldiers presents an ethically challenging scenario that raises concerns of surgical risk as well as issues of neurocognitive enhancement and alteration of personal identity. Unlike the use of BCIs for therapeutic interventions, cognitive, physical, and psychological enhancement of healthy individuals does not fall under the principle of physician beneficence that obligates doctors to restore health to normal levels through the treatment and prevention of disease. Nevertheless, the ability of BCI devices to expand human capacities must also be viewed in light of the advantage they grant soldiers to perform and succeed in combat missions. In this context, development of BCIs can be seen as making a paramount contribution to the national security, which citizens, including physicians, have a social duty to support. Equally important is the distribution of this technology: in the hands of a responsible military, BCIs can protect national interests and the population at large, but if obtained by rogue groups, they can promote terrorism and instability. On a further level, if an existing BCI application had the potential for significant benefit in a much wider population, such as through therapeutic uses, it would be ethically questionable to sequester its use without justly distributing it to the society at large. All these and other considerations make the role of a neurosurgeon in the development of BCIs particularly complex. Nevertheless, ethical considerations must be foremost applied to the most realistic expectations, such as BCI therapeutics, and deferred in those that are presently more speculative.

9 thoughts on “Neural Engineering: Interfaces and the Bluring of Human/Machine

    • Yea, he’s fairly well aligned with a liberal conservative view. He’s against such notions as Kurzweil’s transhumanist agenda and singularity which he sees as a hierarchical take on elitism. For him the merger is more attuned to bottom-up ecological encompassment of human and machine in co-existence, or egalitarian forms and patterns. Not much new in this interview. They obviously try to make it sound like something more than it is… He’s fairly cautious in his views. He’s always seen humanity as taming itself from early tribal societies (shamans) through its stratifications and specializations in agricultural sedentary socialization, etc. For him modernity is not finished by any means, and is still an ongoing process of mobilization out of the older agricultural civilizations and into a new globalized technosphere. His notion of technosphere seems similar to Deleuze/Guattari mechanosphere, or Floridi’s Infosphere in which technology forms a covering over of the natural, and the old categories of nature/culture debates become technology/culture since the earth is a global technology or technosphere for him….

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    • Yea, big bucks in health these days… or at least in Big Data… You noticed their branding notion: “SMART Healthcare is one of the critical indicators of a SMART nation.” One wonders if the use of “SMART” hype is just a fad or an indicator of the new economic pressure being pushed by the neoliberal agenda across the Second and Third World nations…

      The more I study the latest AI, Robotics, etc. I see advances, but it’s decades from being able to deliver on the actual underlying engineering that will meet the complete fictional scenario the hype-managers are pushing for… both in algorithms and materials we’re a long way off… One of the problems is partially this barrier between competing corporations. Corporations like to keep things proprietary and under lock and key, so that the science that needs openness and cross-fertilization begins to be closed off behind secretive corporate silos of knowledge, inaccessible to the very scientists and engineers who would benefit from the latest’s updates…

      Even in these meetings what one gets is just generalizations, not the details: algorithms, code, ingredients, technical specifications, etc…. all this is locked behind the silo of various corporate teams and their initiatives…

      I’ll bet that corporate espionage is a thriving business these days: hackers world is probably gold… the two go hand in hand in the shadow economies we see around the global hype-net.

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