Innovation Monitor: Inspiration via Brain-Computer Interfaces and the future of Neurorights

Innovation Monitor: Inspiration via Brain-Computer Interfaces and the future of Neurorights

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Welcome to this week’s Innovation Monitor.

Ever since Thomas Reardon, cofounder of CTRL+Labs, demoed at the NYC Media Lab Summit in 2018, I’ve been fascinated by the potential of brain-computer interfaces (BCI) and their impact. Last November, this newsletter dug into how companies like Open BCI, Neuralink and CTRL Labs were pushing forward the technology and the general ideas behind BCIs.

This week, we wanted to continue the BCI discussion as the field has advanced significantly. First, there was this inspiring New York Times piece about a paralyzed man using BCI to think words onto a computer screen, allowing him to communicate with words for the first time since 2003. We’ll consider how Facebook has been quietly pushing the BCI space. (Have our readers picked up the investigative exposé, Ugly Truth?)

We’ll then dive into the burgeoning space of neurorights, where academics, industry, and policymakers raise the need for regulation around this mind-reading neurotechnology. This “once unimaginable accomplishment” reflects real-world applications of futuristic technologies that bring up the duality of emerging tech: incredible advances that can improve one’s quality of life, while requiring policies around oversight, exploitation, and rights.

One of the biggest issues around technology regulation (especially in data and privacy) is that it’s reactive or backwards-looking. Regulators often struggle to reverse engineer policy responses to runaway tech. BCI technology holds the potential to be both world-changing and wildly invasive (literally, reading your mind), and some regulators recognize the need to pay close attention right now. That’s an important sign.

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All best,
Erica Matsumoto The Path to BCIs Today In 2017, Facebook announced an initiative to turn thoughts into speech, demonstrating a video of a patient with ALS moving a cursor on a screen using just their mind. Facebook’s then-head of Building 8 Regina Dugan said the patient was able to type eight words per minute.

On May 12 this year, Stanford researchers released a study describing how they implanted two brain chips on a paralyzed patient’s premotor cortex, an area thought to be associated with forming intentions to perform movements.

The researchers asked the patient to imagine writing letters on a page, and captured the corresponding signals. They found they could decipher the correct characters with 94% accuracy — this went up to 99% once a “BCI version of autocorrect” was added.

Not having to move a cursor also boosted writing speed significantly — from around eight words per minute (from Facebook’s demo) to 18 words per minute. See the system in action below.

This month, a study by over a dozen researchers — the culmination of more than a decade of research — presented the most advanced form of a brain-to-speech BCI to date. A man — nicknamed Pancho — that was paralyzed since 2003 was able to form words and sentences from a limited vocabulary by just thinking them.

“This is farther than we’ve ever imagined we could go,” said Melanie Fried-Oken, a professor of neurology, in the New York Times feature. Pancho has been working with neuroscientists for three years now. Connecting Pancho’s brain implant to a computer, the researchers conducted 50 sessions over the span of 81 weeks, recording brain activity while he tried to say 50 common words.

“Our system translates the brain activity that would have normally controlled his vocal tract directly into words and sentences,” said UCSF’s David Moses, one of the developers of the deep-learning-based system. It’s an extremely promising assistive tool for Pancho and others in his situation. Modern tools only allow for about five typed words per minute — 30x slower than human speech.

Moving forward… While this is just the beginning for Pancho, the study is actually the conclusion of a multi-year collaboration between UCSF and Facebook called Project Steno. According to The Verge, “Facebook made clear it is backing off the idea of a commercial head-mounted brain-reading device, and building out wrist-worn interfaces instead” (we covered the company’s work with CTRL-Labs in our November 2020 issue).

While Facebook may appear to be shying away from a product that doesn’t have nearer-term mass-market potential, Neuralink, (another company with alarming headlines exposing problematic practices) is looking to push that market. If you haven’t seen the Monkey MindPong breakdown by Paul Nuyujukian, it will give you a glimpse of how much closer we are to practical assistive BCIs than just a few years ago.

One company that’s pro-BCI (more likely the wearable kind) is Valve. Co-founder Gabe Newell spoke with New Zealand’s 1 News at the start of the year, saying that game developers would be making a big mistake ignoring the tech. From The Verge:

“Newell says that Valve is currently working with OpenBCI headsets to develop open-source software with the aim of making it easier for developers to understand the signals coming from people’s brains…. For example, games could turn up the difficulty if they sense a player is getting bored. But Newell’s more ambitious ideas involve actually writing signals to people’s brains, rather than just reading them.” The slow battle for Neurorights Given society’s lagging reaction to AI’s ethical quandaries, we were pleasantly surprised last month to learn that Chile’s National Commission for Scientific and Technological Research began to debate a neurorights bill, which aims to protect identity, free will, mental privacy, and other basic rights for brain activity. As Scientific American noted: “OECD, UNESCO and the United Nations should be watching closely.”

“Neurotechnology also brings to the fore the added layer of epigenetic consequences, neuropsychiatric complications, and biohacking. This is why the concept of ethical innovations is so important. As outlined by the Neurorights Initiative set up by Colombia University, ethical guidelines should prompt researchers and practitioners to recognize personal accountability for the societal impacts of their innovations.”

Here’s a deeper dive into the bill with Abel Wajnerman Paz, assistant professor at the Alberto Hurtado University in Chile. According to Paz, two bills — “a constitutional reform bill, which is awaiting approval by the Chamber of Deputies, and a bill on neuro-protection” — plan to provide basic neuro-rights.

“By treating neuro-data as an organ, the [neuro-protection] law prohibits Chileans from being compelled to give up brain data and, crucially, its collection will require explicit ‘opt-in’ authorization. Another implication of this legal analogy is that brain data cannot be sold; it can only be donated for altruistic purposes. The buying and selling of brain data is prohibited, regardless of consent.” This Week in Innovation History

July 16h, 1969: The Apollo 11 mission launches

Last week’s Innovation Monitor edition covered the new Space Race and we’re continuing on the theme with this week’s innovation history fact. On July 16th, 1969, the spaceflight that would end with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landing the Lunar Module Eagle on the moon and walking on the surface took off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. A few days into the mission, on July 20th, Neil Armstrong uttered the famous words, “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” and Aldrin joined him 19 minutes later.

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NYC Media Lab connects university researchers and NYC’s media tech companies to create a new community of digital media & tech innovators in New York City.