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What is brain-to-computer tech? (The next big thing!?)

Merging neuroscience and A.I. could produce stunning breakthroughs, says Eberhard Schoneburg.



Eberhard Schoneburg

Of all the discussions from Hong Kong Fintech Week, the weirdest was about the possibilities of connecting human brains directly to the Internet and getting them to communicate and manipulate one another, even across vast distances.

Which naturally reminded DigFin of “The Man With Two Brains”, a mad-scientist comedy from the 1980s starring Steve Martin, who plays Dr. Hfuhruhurr. He’s about to perform a brain-transfer operation on his girlfriend.

Dr. Hfuhruhurr: But there’s only one other person I’d trust to perform this operation – Beckerman!

Dr. Brandon: Well Dr. Beckerman was murdered in Europe. You know that!

Dr. Hfuhruhurr: Exactly! Not only is he dead, he’s six thousand miles away!

But here’s the thing. People have actually made some stunning advances with brain-to-brain connectivity. Eberhard Schoneburg, Hong Kong-based chairman and founder of Brain-Net, drew back the veil on some of what is going on.

From computer brains to human brains

Schoneburg is an expert in artificial intelligence. DigFin profiled his explanation of A.I. back in 2017, at which point Schoneburg had argued that A.I. based purely on math and computer sciences would be limited; what it needed was a biological dimension.

That’s where he’s turned, arguing that over the next 10 years we will witness leaps in brain-to-computer tech that will rival the smartphone in its universal implications.

Today already scientists have enabled people with handicaps to regain mobility, sight, and other capabilities the rest of us take for granted.

Moreover, interfacing brains and computers now gives us the ability to read one another’s thoughts, and even to collaborate in order to solve problems. In one case, three people were hooked up by such interfaces to solve computer games, in which two people used the power of thought to get a third person to move pieces on a computer.

An Internet of brains

Probably the weirdest example of actual events is growing brains in a lab. These are called cerebral organoids, mini human brains grown in petri dishes outside of human bodies, using stem-cell technology.

“You can brow a brain up to a millimeter in size now,” Schoneburg said. “It will advance.” In the future, we could combine such small brains to build a big one. Or we can take further something that has actually happened, Schoeneburg says: implant these human brain growths into the brains of animals like rats (whose brain structure is similar to humans’, just smaller), and integrate these. 

To what end? To have rats as smart as humans, or be mind-controlled by humans? Or to enable us to adapt rat capabilities, such as seeing infrared light?

Already, such implants in two lab rats is showing results, according to Schoeneburg. One is taught a new trick; it can teach this to the other rat without coming into physical contact.

Similar studies are being done on humans, without the implants, using sensor contraptions out of a sci-fi movie. This called “brain-to-brain transcranial magnetic stimulation”: one person thinks of something, generating a particular set of brain waves in their head, which is then communicated to another person, who can interpret the signal.

For now this research is being done with use cases such as enabling people with severe disabilities to communicate. But the implications of this technology take only a little imagination to conjure. Schoneburg merely says this technology will open the door to vast innovations in financial services, among other things, noting that Elon Musk has founded a company, Neuralink, to read human minds and link them to computers.

Enter the cyborgs

There are obvious challenges, not least ethical. The best results come from invasive implants, putting sensors inside people’s skulls. This can disturb the nerves in the brain, to say nothing of the issues around attaching people’s heads to wires and so on. This is only suitable for people with drastic disabilities.

The field is however developing external sensors that are becoming less obtrusive, from sensor bands to electronic tattoos to ear plugs. But the age of the cyborg has dawned: there’s even a documented case of a man who permanently attached a camera to his brain to relieve his color-blindness.

Schoneburg went on in his presentation to explain the history of mapping the brain and its activities, and the use of A.I. to detect patterns and begin the hard work of mapping one person’s brain to another’s, so that signals are interpreted correctly.

“In a few more years we could reconstruct and read what a person is seeing, thinking, or imagining,” he said.

The tech will move from helping disabled people move their wheelchair to interacting with driving cars; from gaming to training people or using biofeedback to enhance learning or help people change their moods. Chips on the brain can be used to store information, which can either help people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease to remember things, or help someone learn a new skill.

Are we headed to a world in which humans merge with artificial intelligence? Listening to Schoneburg, it’s fair to say that DigFin’s mind was blown.

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