Igniting a Brain-Computer Interface Revolution – BCI X PRIZE

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This is a guest post written by entrepreneur, Singularity University alumnus and teaching fellow Rod Furlan. He is an independent researcher in the fields of artificial intelligence, quantitative finance and high-performance computing. Passionate about technology and a serial autodidact, Rod has been to many high-tech industries always in search of the next big challenge. He is currently working on funding solutions for risky and highly-disruptive R&D projects with the intent of accelerating the singularity timeline.

bci xprize furlan diamandis metcalfe hutchinson

From Left: Peter Diamandis, Luke Hutchinson, Rod Furlan, Bob Metcalfe

I have just returned from a X PRIZE Foundation workshop on brain-computer interfaces (BCI) at MIT. The workshop brought together over 50 leading experts, students and enthusiasts with the objective of brainstorming ideas for an X PRIZE competition to accelerate the development of BCI solutions. During the course of this fantastic two-day event we had the opportunity to explore the many possibilities and difficulties of designing and implementing devices capable of communicating directly with the human brain.

The X PRIZE Foundation is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to foster innovation through competition. On October 4, 2004, the X PRIZE Foundation captured the world’s attention when they awarded the largest prize in history, the $10 million Ansari X PRIZE, to Scaled Composites for their craft SpaceShipOne – the first privately built spacecraft capable of carrying three people to 100 kilometers above the earth’s surface, twice within two weeks. With that single flight, a new industry was born and Spaceflight was no longer the exclusive realm of government.

Five years later I now find myself at MIT discussing how we could engineer a similar competition to conquer not outer space, but the inner space of the human brain. We had the opportunity to hear from the field’s leading experts and to explore the many possibilities for competitions that could foster accelerated development of technology that would allow direct brain-to-machine and brain-to-brain communication.

Our deep-future vision for the technology was crystal clear: we want to give vision to the blind, new bodies to disabled people and maybe a GPS sixth sense to the willing. We want to communicate with each other and with our technology using thoughts alone – the possibilities are endless.

At the X PRIZE BCI workshop however, the big questions were not around the possibilities for the technology but around which steps could we take now to accelerate the pace of progress. In a way, we were trying to engineer the future itself as we considered different challenge modalities and incentives.

As Peter Diamandis, Chairman of the X PRIZE Foundation, would say: you will get what you incentivize for. There were many discussions about what we should focus on. Should our primary goal be to create incentives for the development of medical devices that would improve the lives of people living with devastating conditions? Or should we place our focus on the opportunities for human enhancement? Or maybe somewhere in between?

More importantly, a prize is only a good thing if someone wins it. To guide the process towards a winnable challenge one important constraint was imposed: we should only entertain ideas that could be won within a decade.

To ignite the brainstorming process, during the first day of the workshop we listened to several keynote presentations. First Peter Diamandis shared with us a bit of the story and ethos of the X PRIZE (watch his TED talk). He was followed by Ray Kurzweil and his inspiring vision for the future of BCI technology (watch it). Then after a short lunch break we had the opportunity to hear from John Donoghue (founder of Cyberkinetics), Gerwin Schalk (BCI2000) and Ed Boyden from the MIT Synthetic Neurobiology Group.

kurzweil bci xprize

Kurzweil Telecasts His Ideas To The BCI Workshop From Afar

After the keynote presentations we were divided into four breakout discussion groups to explore different aspects of BCI technology: Input/Output, Control, Sensory and Learning. A few hours into the afternoon, the Learning group dissipated as participants realized that given the proposed time frame of the BCI X PRIZE it would be unlikely that anyone would be able to develop solutions for augmented learning by any means other than stumbling into an unexpected breakthrough by sheer luck.

The main challenge we would need to overcome to enable augmented learning is that talking to the brain and purposefully altering the brain to implant a memory or a skill are two fundamentally different tasks and we currently lack significant understanding of how to manipulate neuronal topology in a useful way.

That afternoon all groups focused on forecasting the advances of BCI technology up to 40 years in the future and identifying the most important milestones along the way. Each milestone achievable within a decade from now being a potential candidate for an X PRIZE competition.

Early next morning we had two more presentations about the current cutting edge of BCI technology. First Dean Pomerleau from Intel Labs shared with us details about his latest research on thought recognition. He was followed by Christopher deCharms’ presentation on real-time fMRI scanning (watch his TED talk).

After the presentations it was time to start pruning ideas from our lists. Each group then worked towards identifying and presenting their best 3 candidates for either a X PRIZE (achievable within 8-10 years) or a X CHALLENGE (achievable within 2-3 years).

Conclusions

While we still have significant technical and scientific hurdles ahead of us, given the current pace of progress it is reasonable to expect that robust, albeit limited, implanted BCI solutions will be widely available commercially within a 10 to 20 year time frame. My definition of widely available in this case would be a market penetration similar to what cochlear implants have today.

Invasive vs. Non-Invasive

As non-invasive interfaces are generally limited to reading brain states, it is unlikely they will be able to evolve into robust input and output solutions. Consensus among the experts in the room was that EEG is probably a dead end because while it provides great temporal resolution, its maximum achievable spatial resolution will probably fall short of the requirements of future applications.

Regulatory Hurdles

One big factor that is currently slowing down progress of implanted, invasive devices is that while animal models are great to get research off the ground, without human subjects it would be impossible to develop powerful interfaces for human use. However current FDA regulations in the United States don’t make it easy to experiment in humans.  Basically, unless someone is already going through open brain surgery for some other reason it is unlikely researchers would be able to implant experimental BCI devices inside their skull.

I am personally fascinated by regulatory and moral asymmetries – consider the example of test pilots. They put their lives at risk to test unproven aircraft and governments are generally fine with it. There isn’t a heated discussion about it being a big ethical dilemma, a few test pilots will die so we can develop new aircraft – and we accept that because want new aircraft to be developed. When it comes down to medicine however, it is apparently a big deal to risk someone’s life to further medical research – even if the subject is willing to accept the risk.

Is geo-arbitrage the solution?

Fast Company recently published a very interesting article on how a stem cell startup used geo-arbitrage to sidestep the FDA’s clinical testing requirements. As technological progress accelerates, the pressure to decrease the time-to-market of new implantable devices could make this practice widespread. Unless there are changes to the FDA approval process to accommodate shorter product cycles, researchers in the USA might soon find themselves dealing with a situation that is much like the game theory problem known as “the prisoner’s dilemma“: even though the best possible global outcome can only be achieved if everyone goes through the FDA approval process, individual markets would eventually be forced into overseas testing one-by-one after a few key players “defect” in order to gain a short term edge.

The alternative: making “intrusive” not so intrusive

FDA regulations exist mostly to mitigate risks to patients. New implantation techniques that significantly reduce risks could become a practical alternative to geo-arbitrage and medical tourism.

For example, a mobile camera robot was recently developed to provide the ability for a single incision biopsy procedure. Using sophisticated computer-aided navigation and motion compensation for the movement caused by heart beats, researchers were able to extract deep tissue from living organisms with minimized risk and minimal collateral damage.

This same technology could one day be used to implant electrodes directly into the brain through a very small hole in the skull or even through softer tissue inside the nose or around the eyes, thus greatly reducing the risks involved with the procedure.

What is next?

The MIT workshop marked the beginning of the development of the BCI X PRIZE. A typical prize development process takes 8-14 months to complete. In the meantime the foundation will be conducting interviews with experts, governments, potential competitors as it strives to mature the competition’s goals and rules as well to pursue donors for the prize purse.  Once the funding is secured and the requirements for the prize are finalized, the race will be on for companies and teams around the world to compete to make a major breakthrough in BCI.

Discussion — 16 Responses

  • dave finnigan January 21, 2010 on 7:30 pm

    My adult cerebral palsied son is extremely bright but non-vocal. He has no control over any limb or over his eyes. He would be “locked in” except his output now is to select letters from an alphabetic grid using clicks he makes with his tongue. He can spell words or phrases quickly enough that a patient person can converse with him, at about the rate of one word per minute. He is bright enough that he usually knows final jeopardy and could get to $100,000 on Millionaire. He would love to have a BCI device. He would not mind shaving his head and wearing a skull cap, but isn't interested in surgically implanted electrodes. Is there any hope for him? We live in Florida but could travel to get him a device.

  • -MG January 21, 2010 on 11:12 pm

    dave finnigan, you may wish to check out
    http://www.brainfingers.com/
    I have no personal experience with it but I understand that it is actually available, unlike much of what we read about. There may be other products along these lines.

    For entertainment only, and at a lower price, he may be interested in Mattel's MindFlex, or maybe OCZ's NIA or, in a few months I imagine, Emotiv's EPOC will become available.

  • dave finnigan January 22, 2010 on 12:04 am

    Thanks

    On your advice I just wrote to Brainfingers.

    Dave

  • LLM January 23, 2010 on 11:15 pm

    I quote from the above:
    One big factor that is currently slowing down progress of implanted, invasive devices is that while animal models are great to get research off the ground, without human subjects it would be impossible to develop powerful interfaces for human use. However current FDA regulations in the United States don’t make it easy to experiment in humans. Basically, unless someone is already going through open brain surgery for some other reason it is unlikely researchers would be able to implant experimental BCI devices inside their skull.

    This is the ideal, official, ethical side. The side they will tell you about. In practice, implanting devices inside human skulls has been going on without consent for decades. We have court documents, currently, regarding work at Toronto Hospital for Sick Children. Terry somebody – was his name Johnson? No consent, no parental consent. Done on a child, decades ago, ostrensibly to pursue epilepsy research. And this sort of thing, the Toronto one, is STILL the nice side of what is happening. Then you have the intelligence agency research, and the thug groups research, and the, Nazi and Japanese and other warfare research, and the delusional secret societies' research, and the people-who-would-be-King research… and… and… It's good to have your insights here, but you have to multiply by ten, and count in the nasty people.

  • Brendan Allison February 6, 2010 on 1:00 pm

    Hello,

    It would be great to see a BCI X-Prize. It is indeed a very exciting time in the BCI research community.

    The comment from LLM is correct, in that there is no trivial way to place an electrode on, in, or very near the brain. There is progress in technologies to implant electrodes with less trouble, as Furlan notes, but drilling (smaller) holes in the head is still a serious procedure.

    “Consensus among the experts in the room was that EEG is probably a dead end because while it provides great temporal resolution, its maximum achievable spatial resolution will probably fall short of the requirements of future applications.”

    In general, the view that EEG is dead as a key modality in future BCI research is not at all the consensus of BCI experts. This is easy to see from the literature, funding decisions in the US and EU, emerging commercial applications, etc. For example, over 80% of BCI publications used EEG (Mason et al.,2007).While invasive BCIs can provide valuable communication for people with disabilities, the ethical and financial concerns with their use (among others) limit their viability for most people. Within the 10 year time span of the X-Prize, and a reasonable time after that, invasive and noninvasive BCIs will be used by different types of users. Invasive BCIs will benefit persons who can get neurosurgery, or at the very least a nontrival medical procedure. Noninvasive BCIs will also benefit some patients, and will benefit other users, such as healthy users in some situations, often in combination with other interfaces, sensor systems, or communication mechanisms. Therefore, I think the conensus of most BCI experts is that methods based on the EEG, other noninvasive methods, and invasive methods are all promising. It would be premature to say that any approach will be dead in the time frame envisioned in the X-Prize.

    Brendan Allison, PhD

  • garymaloney February 6, 2010 on 10:07 pm

    First of all, I think that the potentials of the BCI should be divided into telepathy-like versus telekinesis-like. Then we should consider the nature of motion perception as an abstract removed to its highest cognitive level. Only then can we understand what can be done with motion alone in a virtual setting using only audio visual prompts and cues. Is it possible to actually move? This read-only-ing the motor cortex might not ever be possible without implants, at least not for the full effect. However, with what has been accomplished by imagined movements in a VR setting and lucid dream movement both with scalp EEG, there is evidence there will be something for the rest of us.

  • Linda April 7, 2010 on 9:22 pm

    I wonder if BCI technology could help with building better customer relationships?

  • Linda April 7, 2010 on 5:22 pm

    I wonder if BCI technology could help with building better customer relationships?

  • George Dimitriadis June 11, 2010 on 10:24 am

    First a small introduction. I am a post doctoral researcher working on invasive (Electrocorticographic) BCI in animals in Holland (Donders institute, Nijmegen University). Having said that my following opinions are just that, mine and just opinions, although I believe I share them with a respectable percentage of the BCI community.

    Firstly to answer Mr. Finnigan’s question. Unfortunately no. Any non invasive BCI system currently available is worse than other assistive technologies like the one your son is using, both in results and in difficulty of setup and use. The general consensus is that although currently non invasive BCI is funded quite higher than invasive it will not be able to compete with invasive and will even have a very hard time to compete with tried and tested assistive methods (tongue clicks, eye tracking, etc). And this concerns research range BCI systems (costing between $10k and $50k and needing expert users). Talking about commercially available games like Emotive’s is just a waste of time. I and a lot of people from the community are trying everything that comes in the market and nothing is worth even talking about at the level of assistive technology your son already possesses.

    Second point I would like to make has to do with the discrepancy between the perceived and real risk of invasive BCI. The following opinion is also supported by neurosurgeons in the field that routinely operate for implantation of different kinds of brain implants (ECoG grids, Deep Brain Stimulators, etc). Unfortunately the data are currently anecdotal and there is yet no research with statistics published that I could point you to. According to these opinions though current invasive BCI implantations are of the same risk as other routine procedures that involve brain surgery that are done as everyday operations in hospitals all around the world (DBS for example) and in general they approach the risk of total anaesthesia. That is they are safe enough to actually be at the same risk level of any total anaesthesia operation like a plastic surgery (yes a breast implant is pretty much as risky as a brain implant). The perceived risk by people has nothing to do really with the realities of the operation table and much more on the relative value we place to the different parts of our bodies and to the fact that BCI invasive operations are not (due to FDA rules) standard procedures thus still an unknowable.
    Finally let me state that I think the X prizes conclusion on the merits of invasive versus non invasive BCI is significantly closer to reality than the current state of grand proposals in the world would have one to believe. Although I am a person weary of over hyping and sexing up any field of science (and the destructive results of that I have both witnessed and experienced in my carrier up to today) I do hope the BCI X price (if it becomes reality) will provide the world with a better view of the realities and opportunities of this kind of technology. BCI can be a civilization turning point as long as it is approached with the scientific rigor such an important interface between science and technology demands.

  • George Dimitriadis June 11, 2010 on 6:24 am

    First a small introduction. I am a post doctoral researcher working on invasive (Electrocorticographic) BCI in animals in Holland (Donders institute, Nijmegen University). Having said that my following opinions are just that, mine and just opinions, although I believe I share them with a respectable percentage of the BCI community.

    Firstly to answer Mr. Finnigan’s question. Unfortunately no. Any non invasive BCI system currently available is worse than other assistive technologies like the one your son is using, both in results and in difficulty of setup and use. The general consensus is that although currently non invasive BCI is funded quite higher than invasive it will not be able to compete with invasive and will even have a very hard time to compete with tried and tested assistive methods (tongue clicks, eye tracking, etc). And this concerns research range BCI systems (costing between $10k and $50k and needing expert users). Talking about commercially available games like Emotive’s is just a waste of time. I and a lot of people from the community are trying everything that comes in the market and nothing is worth even talking about at the level of assistive technology your son already possesses.

    Second point I would like to make has to do with the discrepancy between the perceived and real risk of invasive BCI. The following opinion is also supported by neurosurgeons in the field that routinely operate for implantation of different kinds of brain implants (ECoG grids, Deep Brain Stimulators, etc). Unfortunately the data are currently anecdotal and there is yet no research with statistics published that I could point you to. According to these opinions though current invasive BCI implantations are of the same risk as other routine procedures that involve brain surgery that are done as everyday operations in hospitals all around the world (DBS for example) and in general they approach the risk of total anaesthesia. That is they are safe enough to actually be at the same risk level of any total anaesthesia operation like a plastic surgery (yes a breast implant is pretty much as risky as a brain implant). The perceived risk by people has nothing to do really with the realities of the operation table and much more on the relative value we place to the different parts of our bodies and to the fact that BCI invasive operations are not (due to FDA rules) standard procedures thus still an unknowable.
    Finally let me state that I think the X prizes conclusion on the merits of invasive versus non invasive BCI is significantly closer to reality than the current state of grand proposals in the world would have one to believe. Although I am a person weary of over hyping and sexing up any field of science (and the destructive results of that I have both witnessed and experienced in my carrier up to today) I do hope the BCI X price (if it becomes reality) will provide the world with a better view of the realities and opportunities of this kind of technology. BCI can be a civilization turning point as long as it is approached with the scientific rigor such an important interface between science and technology demands.

  • Vivid Dreams eBook July 18, 2010 on 2:36 pm

    Hi! Excellent post, really helpful! I was looking into dreaming and lucid dreaming and found this ebook called vivid dreaming – I downloaded it and it was pretty good stuff! I suggest you take a look if you’re into lucid dreaming (click my name or go here: http://ebookdl.net/vivid_dreams) – btw I will boukmark this blog, you’re doing a great job! Awaiting more of your posts! :)

  • Vivid Dreams eBook July 18, 2010 on 10:36 am

    Hi! Excellent post, really helpful! I was looking into dreaming and lucid dreaming and found this ebook called vivid dreaming – I downloaded it and it was pretty good stuff! I suggest you take a look if you’re into lucid dreaming (click my name or go here: http://ebookdl.net/vivid_dreams) – btw I will boukmark this blog, you’re doing a great job! Awaiting more of your posts! :)

  • Stephen September 5, 2010 on 4:40 pm

    Bad days for cellular companies would be started if direct brain-to-machine and brain-to-brain communication become possible for a normal person like me .

  • Stephen September 5, 2010 on 12:40 pm

    Bad days for cellular companies would be started if direct brain-to-machine and brain-to-brain communication become possible for a normal person like me .

    • Nauman Naseer Stephen February 7, 2013 on 10:31 pm

      What about NIRS? Better spatial resolution than EEG and a good temporal resolution too :)

      NN

  • Nauman Naseer February 7, 2013 on 10:32 pm

    What about NIRS? Better spatial resolution than EEG and a good temporal resolution too

    NN