Synchron and Blackrock, funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), are behind the development of new technology called the brain-computer interface (BCI). Matthew Nagle received the first proper BCI implant in 2006 and used it to play Pong telepathically. As of 2023, there are 36 people globally with known BCI implants, 32 of which were produced and implanted by Blackrock technology.
The silicon-based chip is implanted in a bed of gray matter and the technology is growing fast due to a new influx of generous funding. The current BCIs are used to read neurons and are not able to feed signals into the brain. There are deep brain stimulation implants, wired electrodes that sit under the skull, used to control tremors and more recently alter moods. These simple systems, embedded in over 160,000 heads, do send signals to the brain, but it’s a long way from controlling thoughts.
The ultimate goal of leading companies is having the ability to read and write full information like computer memory directly into the brain, allowing humans to directly communicate with artificial intelligence through our thoughts. This would give them the ability to potentially rewrite memory, erase thoughts and control the masses at a new level.
These BCI developers shield themselves from the outrage we should all feel by telling the wonderful stories of developing technology to allow the lame to walk and the blind to see. I have to say that this is an admirable goal and if that was the end goal, BCIs would be a wonderful advancement in medical science. The great news here is that this technology already exists and has been tested in people today, providing many with the ability to see and walk.
Synchron received FDA approval last summer to start human trials in the U.S. for their Stentrode product. Stentrode is much less invasive than Blackrock Neurotech. Blackrock uses a micro-electrode array that sits directly on the brain, requiring the cutting of the skull. Blackrock technology’s Neurotech is a quarter-sized skull plug with 1,024 hair-thin wires fanning out into the gray matter below. The Stentrode is a wire-mesh stent that resembles a Chinese finger cuff. The stent is inserted in the jugular vein and maneuvered into place through the brain’s blood vessels. Once installed the Stentrode monitors brain activity and transmits the signals to an antenna device sitting in the chest under the skin.
Synchron’s current projects are focused on the motor cortex. The user concentrates on performing the required task, like moving an artificial limb; the device reads the corresponding brain activity and external AI systems create a digital mirror linking the brain pattern to the desire. This training activity allows the paralyzed user to do things, like move a cursor on a screen to type text. Synchron’s most famous patient sent the first “telepathic” tweet, “hello, world! Short tweet. Monumental progress.” There are obvious benefits to such technology, but it won’t stop with helping the paralyzed.
Synchron CEO Tom Oxley said, “Synchron’s north star is to achieve whole-brain data transfer. The blood vessels provide surgery-free access to all regions of the brain, and at scale.”
It will be the ultimate fusion of mind and machine, allowing the user to control digital activity with thoughts alone. Because most primary functions of the brain are identical from person to person, once you create the map of one brain, you have mapped them all. Far beyond healing, Oxley wants to transcend the human condition; this is a shared passion among BCI researchers. BCI technology is aiming for Humanity 2.0, blurring the distinction between electronic circuits and neural circuits even more.
Until next week, stay safe and learn something new.
Scott Hamilton is an Expert in Emerging Technologies at ATOS and can be reached with questions and comments via email to email@example.com or through his website at https://www.techshepherd.org.