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The Proliferation of BCIs

Reality can at times, be stranger than fiction. Never has this statement held truer than within the domain of Brain Computer Interfaces (BCIs). With the help of this new-fangled technology, humanity now has the capacity to manage complex machinery with their minds. How voodoo! In this blog, AICoreSpot will be looking into Brain Computer Interfaces and whether we, as a society, are ready to integrate them into our lives. 

Insight into this emergent technology at this crucial juncture can enable us to make sure that effective regulation is set in stone before BCIs become ubiquitous. 

Three RC cars race off, filling the vicinity with the sounds of car’s whirring engine. They quickly vie for top spot, overtaking each other several times, and then a clear winner emerges. A few 100 meters away, the controller isn’t handline a remote control. Actually, he isn’t pressing on or using any device. As a matter of fact, he’s controlling the RC cars using solely his mind. 

This isn’t fiction. Experiment such as these are well under way.  

In 2016, a mechanical engineering Ph.D. scholar at the Arizona State University is doing the same thing, only with drones. He’s appears to be wearing a bizarre piece of kit on his head. It kind of looks like a swim cap, but the difference is that it is outfitted with 130 colorful sensors that identify the scholar’s brain waves. These gadgets let him control drone movement by merely contemplating the directional commands. In other words, he thinks about the drone’s trajectory, and the device converts his thought waves into tangible reality. 

Presently, these kinds of BCIs are being produced in laboratories like the one at Arizona State University in 2016, which has since then been shifted to the University of Delaware. Looking forward, all varieties of BCIs could be put out to customers or leveraged in warzones. 

This army of mind-managed drones is merely one instance of BCI tech detailed in a preliminary evaluation of BCI by RAND corporation analysts. They evaluated present and future developments within the sphere of BCI and assessed the practical utility and possible risks associated with these kinds of technologies. Their research is part of RAND’s Security 2040 initiative, which peeks over the borders and wades through new emergent technologies and trending frameworks and systems that are giving shape to the next generation of international security. 

It might seem to be straight out of science fiction, but as we said at the beginning of this blog post, sometimes, reality is stranger than fiction. It is indeed interesting to witness what has been accomplished so far in lab settings and then contemplate in an organized fashion as to how this translates to practical usage in external, real-world scenarios. 

If present accomplishments in BCI technology are unfathomable, then it is logical to presume that advancements in the not-too-far-away future will be truly jaw-dropping indeed. And with the speeds at which such technologies are progressing, we have to contemplate on the various crucial factors surrounding them, right now. 

How do BCIs function? 

BCI tech enables human brains and an exterior gadget to communicate with each other – to swap signals, if you will. It provides humanity the capacity to manage machines in a direct, hands-off (no pun intended) fashion, without any physical restrictions. 

Researchers undertook analysis of present and prospective BCI tools that variable with regards to how accurate they are, and in terms of their invasiveness, two traits that are interconnected. The larger the proximity of electrodes to the human brain, the more robust the signal, like a mental mobile phone tower. 

Non-invasive tools typically leverage sensors. They have their application on or near the head of the subject to track and document brain signals, much like the swim cap model the ASU researcher leveraged. These can be inserted and extracted easily, but their signaling may be muddled and inaccurate. 

Invasive BCI needs surgical intervention. Electronic instruments would require to be placed underneath the skull, right on the brain, for targeting particular categories of neurons. BCI implants presently being developed are miniscule and can facilitate engagement of up to a million neurons, simultaneously. For instance, a research unit at the University of California, Berkeley has developed implant sensors that are approximately the size of a speck of sand. They refer to these tiny sensors as neural dust. 

Invasive procedures would in all likelihood output much more clarity, accuracy with regards to signaling between the device and the human brain. However, just like with any surgical procedures, the strategies leveraged to implant them are not risk free. 

A new universe of possibilities 

By developing the capacity for humanity to interact directly with devices, BCI can possibly impact all aspects of life as we know it. Senior Research Engineers at RAND, however, state that it is logical to begin by analyzing these emergent technologies through a military perspective. The rationale behind this is simple. Battle is one of the most turbulent and complex scenarios imaginable.  

If it can be leveraged in a war, it could probably be leveraged at times when a natural disaster is transpiring such as a tsunami or a forest fire. It could be leveraged to save more lives in such scenarios. These are obvious advantages. Researchers, have however, reiterated that they’re not championing the utilization of these intricate technologies. Rather they’re evaluating the viability of their utilization. 

A majority of BCI projects are still in the developmental stages and are being researched on an ongoing basis with direct funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Air Force Research Lab, the Army Research Lab, and other entities. With the capabilities of BCI tools, the U.S.A’s army could possibly improve the physical and cognitive abilities of its soldiers. 

BCI could additionally, impart several clinical benefits both in the worlds of the army and of the citizen. For example, amputated persons can directly manage complex prosthetic limbs. Electrode implants could enhance memory for people suffering from Alzheimer’s, stroke, or head trauma.  

On the basis of current analysis of existing BCI developments and the kinds of tasks that tactical army outfits might encounter tomorrow, the RAND team developed a toolbox that categorizes how BCI might prove its utility in the upcoming years. A few BCI functionalities might be deployed with a considerably short timespan – within the next two decades or so. Yet others, particularly ones that communicate more complex and intricate information could take a lot longer to attain maturity. The team then evaluated this toolbox by combining neuroscientists and individuals with operational warfighting simulations to play a national security game. 

The technology of tomorrow has to be understood today 

Just like other emergent technologies, BCI holds several risks and things which are just not yet known about the technology. Prior to BCI’s maturity, it’s critical for devs to strategize ahead and take into consideration the ethics and policy-related matters connected to complex and possibly frightening scenarios. 

For example, progressive BCI deployments could be used to minimize pain or even handle troublesome emotions. What occurs when military deployments are put into the warzone with their sense of fears reduced, or maybe even eradicated? What are the psychological impacts they will encounter to their psyches when they return home? Now is the ideal time to contemplate on such situations to make sure that there are safety measures in place well ahead of the time we might need them. 

There can be a reactionary attitude to emergent technologies such as this, that it will cause job loss, or that it might be militarized. But researchers have attributed the impact and influence of BCI as being no more different than a car, it can be dangerous if used in the wrong ways, but ultimately, it is a really useful tool. 

In retrospect, policies surrounding AI, robotics, and other emergent tech should have been had a couple of decades ago, as now, people are adopting reactionary attitudes towards it, which can prove counterproductive to advancement. The unknown is always feared. We all need to obtain the critical insight into BCI, and we need to make sure that we are not careless when we eventually start to deploy it en masse.  

As BCI developers ready themselves for the challenges, they should carefully contrast the prospects against the potential risks. 

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