Curing neurodegenerative disease.
Performing internet searches with nothing but your mind.
Instantly learning a new language.
Today’s science fiction, but thanks to brain-computer interfaces it could be tomorrow’s reality.
Brain-computer interface (BCI) is an umbrella term that describes electronic devices aiming to connect directly with our brains. Electroencephalography (EEG) is perhaps the most rudimentary form of BCI, recording brain activity and allowing the identification of patterns that remain valuable in clinical practice today. Whilst these devices simply record electrical activity, more advanced devices such as cochlear implants, often termed neuroprosthetics, stimulate the brain to restore sensory function. Although the terms neuroprosthetic and BCI are often used interchangeably, the latter tends to refer to more advanced devices capable of complex signal analysis, akin to that performed by the brain itself. The emergence of artificial intelligence, particularly through advances in machine learning, promises to revolutionise the nascent field of neurotechnology.
Neuralink is one of the most publicised companies currently working on BCIs, founded by Elon Musk in 2017. A prototype ultra-thin “neural probe” developed by Neuralink hit the headlines in 2019, designed to be implanted into the brain and record neurons. Prototype devices have been surgically implanted into pigs and monkeys, appearing to be safe in animals that share similar gross brain anatomy to humans. Neuralink recently released a video showing a male macaque playing the video game Pong with nothing but it’s mind — awesome to say the least!
Musk has claimed his devices to be capable of curing blindness, deafness and paralysis, although this is highly speculative given the first human trials will not begin until later in 2021 at the earliest. Other companies have developed products hinting at the incredible potential of BCIs too. Los Angeles start-up Kernel unveiled “Sound ID” in 2020, a wearable helmet that utilises magnetometer sensors to decode brain activity and identify the exact song the user is listening to with 100% accuracy!
To bridge the gap between our current capabilities and science fiction, there are two major challenges we must first overcome. The first is an engineering challenge. For BCIs to accurately record electrical activity at the level of individual neurons, we must find a way of implanting tiny electrodes into the brain. Creating robust electrical components on the micrometer scale, with no harmful effects on existing brain cells, is a mammoth task. For this reason, many companies are currently focussing on non-invasive devices that record the electrical and magnetic fields of the brain. The impedance of the skull limits the efficacy of such devices — it’s like listening to conversation in a busy room through a wall. You can make out the general din of voices and the mood of the conversation, but understanding what each person is saying is impossible.
The second, and undoubtedly harder challenge, is leveraging our understanding of the brain to replicate complex tasks, such as learning to speak a new language. Restoring the memories and personality traits of a patient with Alzheimer’s disease, for instance, will not be possible without uncovering their biological basis. It may be that by engineering a solution to the first challenge, we will then be able to answer the second. At present, it is not possible to record the activity of a single neuron within the human brain. Our reliance on computational models and in vitro experimentation limits what we can learn about the basis of human consciousness, emotion, and thoughts. It’s like trying to copy a watch, but all we can see are the hands moving across the face. Decoding the information contained within the firing patterns of billions of neurons will still be an enormous challenge, but one that will be almost certainly impossible without recording the brain in action.
When considering an entirely new technology, it is often difficult to predict how large the market will be. In 2019, the global BCI market was valued at just $1.2 billion by Grand View Research. Compare this to the global smartphone market, hitting a massive $715 billion in 2020 according to Mordor Intelligence. If BCIs become a class of product that the majority of people on the planet aspire to own, then the growth in market size over the coming decades will be vast.
Drawing the line between medical treatments and technical consumer goods will be interesting as BCIs develop. Whilst capabilities remain limited, products may be better suited to the technical consumer goods market, an example being the Muse headband which uses EEG to monitor sleep and refocus during the day through meditation. The next generation of products will likely drive enormous growth in the healthcare market, particularly if devices are able to treat common conditions such as depression and dementia. Connecting our brains with intelligent machines could also bestow people with “superhuman” powers such as cognitive enhancement, telepathy, or even the ability to move things with our mind.
The final stage, incorporating BCIs with virtual reality, could usher in a new era in how we interact with our world, and perhaps the nature of the world that we live in altogether. Think “Ready Player One” or even “San Junipero” for any Black Mirror fans out there! Of course, the scary power of BCIs means we should also be worried about the consequences of their development. Utopia could become dystopia if we are not careful.
Identifying the companies that are likely to gain a large market share is challenging, and given the nature of the product, existing technology giants such as Google, Apple and Microsoft are well placed to exploit a boom in BCIs. Going back to the example of the smartphone market, Google and Apple were by no means the first to develop such devices but have since muscled in and blown much of the competition out of the water. This could happen with BCIs too. Facebook has a research team dedicated to BCI development and no doubt the same can be said for most large technology companies across the globe.
We remain in a research and development stage where we lack proof-of-concept for many of the solutions BCIs have been touted to provide. Given tech giants are less agile than start-ups, it may make more sense for them to acquire BCI companies once the market has matured. In the meantime, there’s a massive incentive for BCI start-ups to establish themselves as market leaders over the coming years. Several of the most exciting companies to watch are listed below.
- Aiming to develop the first neural implant to allow control of a computer or mobile device by interfacing directly with the brain
- Currently has over $150m in funding from Elon Musk and remains a private company
- Given Musk is currently (one of) the world’s richest, there is no incentive to dilute his equity through venture funding so highly unlikely to be an option for pre-IPO investment
- If and when Neuralink goes public, probably not for several years, we foresee a scramble for stock and would be very bullish about purchasing shares, especially if Musk continues to propel the company forwards as an early market leader
- Currently has over $100m investment, with a large proportion of funding from serial entrepreneur and company founder Bryan Johnson
- Recently partnered with Cybin, a psychedelic research company
- Flagship product Kernel Flux uses alkali vapor sensors to detect the magnetic fields created by neural activity — under development for a range of applications
- Launched in 2015, with $6m in seed funding following incubation at Harvard Innovation Lab
- Launched a wearable headband that uses artificial intelligence to track focus and attention level with the aim of improving classroom performance
- Currently developing a robotic prosthetic hand
- Developing software that can connect with the brain to allow telekinetic control of the digital world
- $9m investment following Series A funding
- Aiming to create an “everyday brain-computer interface” that is widely accessible to users across the globe
- Creating a “look-and-think” interface — smart glasses that allow wearers to access information through a single thought
- Combination of augmented reality with BCIs is ambitious but innovative
- Only $2m in seed funding to date — has the potential to be an excellent opportunity for early investors
- Gamification of neurorehabilitation — their FDA-cleared interventions have been used by over 10,000 patients
- MindMotion GO uses game-based therapeutics to promote customisable movements required for stroke recovery
- One of the early market leaders with over $100m in investment — including funding from actor Leonardo DiCaprio
- Investigating how the brain creates memories and developing techniques to preserve the physical traces of memory
- Seed funding of $120k — potentially an excellent investment opportunity as memory preservation infrastructure could be integral to a range of future neurotechnology solutions
Just a final note — I do some consultancy work for BCI start-up ni2o. I’ve not discussed this here but worth checking out if you’re interested!
Written by Benjamin Jones
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