New brain game will blow your mind

De­signed by a U.S. startup, neu­rotech de­vice al­lows users to men­tally con­trol ob­jects

Toronto Star - - BUSINESS - CADE METZ

SAN FRAN­CISCO— When you pull the head­set over your eyes and the game be­gins, you are trans­ported to a tiny room with white walls. Your task is to break out of the room, but you can­not use your hands. There is no joy­stick or game pad. You must use your thoughts.

You turn to­ward a ball on the floor, and your brain sends a com­mand to pick it up. With an­other thought, you send the ball crash­ing into a mir­ror, break­ing the glass and re­veal­ing a few num­bers scrib­bled on a wall. You men­tally type those num­bers into a large key­pad by the door. And you are out.

De­signed by Neurable, a small startup founded by Ram­ses Al­caide, an elec­tri­cal engi­neer and neu­ro­sci­en­tist, the game of­fers what you might call a com­puter mouse for the mind, a way of se­lect­ing items in a vir­tual world with your thoughts.

In­cor­po­rat­ing a head­set with vir­tual re­al­ity gog­gles and sen­sors that can read your brain waves, this pro­to­type is a few years from the mar­ket. And it is lim­ited in what it can do. You can­not select an ob­ject with your mind un­less you first look in its di­rec­tion, nar­row­ing the num­ber of items you may be con­sid­er­ing.

But it works. I re­cently played the game, which has the work­ing ti­tle Awak­en­ing, when Al­caide and two Neurable em­ploy­ees passed through San Fran­cisco, and a few hun­dred oth­ers tried it this month at the SIGGRAPH com­puter graph­ics con­fer­ence in Los An­ge­les.

The pro­to­type is among the ear­li­est fruits of a wide­spread ef­fort to em­brace tech­nol­ogy that was once science fic­tion — and in some ways still is. Driven by re­cent in­vest­ments from the U.S. govern­ment and by the herd men­tal­ity that so of­ten char­ac­ter­izes the tech world, a num­ber of star­tups and big­ger com­pa­nies such as Face­book are work­ing on ways to men­tally con­trol ma­chines. They are also look­ing for smoother ways to use vir­tual re­al­ity tech­nol­ogy.

“Neu­rotech­nol­ogy has be- come cool,” said Ed Boy­den, a pro­fes­sor of bi­o­log­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing and brain and cog­ni­tive sci­ences at the MIT Me­dia Lab, who ad­vises one of those star­tups.

The in­creased in­ter­est in neu­rotech­nol­ogy is partly a re­sult of an ef­fort the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion started in 2013. The ini­tia­tive helped cre­ate sig­nif­i­cant govern­ment fi­nanc­ing for brain-in­ter­face com­pa­nies and re­lated work in academia. Then, Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla and SpaceX, be­gan pro­mot­ing the idea and his lat­est com­pany, Neu­ralink. That com­bi­na­tion has at­tracted the in­ter­est of pri­vate ven­ture cap­i­tal firms.

“With the smart­phone, we’re start­ing to reach the lim­its of what we can do,” said Doug Clin­ton, the founder of Loup Ven­tures, a new ven­ture cap­i­tal firm that has in­vested in Neurable. “These com­pa­nies are the next step.”

The Neurable pro­to­type shows what is pos­si­ble to­day. Us­ing elec­troen­cephalog­ra­phy, or EEG — a means of mea­sur­ing elec­tri­cal brain ac­tiv­ity that has been around for decades — the com­pany can pro­vide sim­ple ways of men­tally in­ter­act­ing with a game. Some com­pa­nies hope to go much fur­ther and want to build ways of per­form­ing nearly any com­put­ing task with the mind. Imag­ine a brain in­ter­face for rapidly typ­ing on a smart­phone.

Even for Sil­i­con Val­ley entreprene­urs l i ke Musk, set­ting that goal pushes tech­no­log­i­cal op­ti­mism to new heights. Some ef­forts seem par­tic­u­larly quixotic. Musk said in one in­ter­view that Neu­ralink planned to de­velop ways of im­plant­ing hard­ware in the skulls of com­pletely healthy peo­ple.

At Neurable, which is based in Bos­ton, Al­caide and the mem­bers of his team are push­ing the lim­its of EEG head­sets. Although sen­sors can read elec­tri­cal brain ac­tiv­ity from out­side the skull, it is very dif­fi­cult to sep­a­rate the sig­nal from the noise. Us­ing com­puter al­go­rithms based on re­search Al­caide orig­i­nally pub­lished as a doc­toral stu­dent at the Uni­ver­sity of Michi­gan, Neurable works to read ac­tiv­ity with a speed and ac­cu­racy that is not usu­ally pos­si­ble.

The al­go­rithms learn from your be­hav­iour. Be­fore play­ing the game, you train them to rec­og­nize when you are fo­cus­ing your at­ten­tion on an ob­ject. A pulse of light bounces around the vir­tual room, and each time it hits a small coloured ball in front of you, you think about the ball. At that mo­ment, when you fo­cus on the light and it stim­u­lates your brain, the sys­tem reads the elec­tri­cal spikes of your brain ac­tiv­ity.

Af­ter you do this for a few min­utes, the game learns to rec­og­nize when you are con­cen­trat­ing on an item. “We look at spe­cific brain sig­nals,” Al­caide said, “and once we un­der­stand them, we can use them.” When you play the game, the same light bounces around the vir­tual room. When it hits the item you are think­ing about, the sys­tem can iden­tify the in­crease in brain ac­tiv­ity. The tech­nique works with equip­ment that al­ready ex­ists. Neurable’s pro­to­type uses vir­tual re­al­ity gog­gles from HTC, a con­sumer elec­tron­ics compa- ny, and seven EEG sen­sors placed at spe­cific spots around your head. But given the phys­i­cal lim­its of what these sen­sors can read, an EEGbased game is un­likely to do more than slowly and sim­ply select dig­i­tal ob­jects.

Some com­pa­nies are work­ing to move be­yond that. Face­book, for ex­am­ple, is ex­plor­ing meth­ods for op­ti­cally read­ing brain ac­tiv­ity from out­side the skull. Such a sys­tem would shine light into the brain to di­rectly read chem­i­cal changes.

“What if you could type di­rectly from your brain?” Regina Du­gan of Face­book said this spring as she un­veiled the com­pany’s ef­forts to build this kind of op­ti­cal in­ter­face. “It sounds im­pos­si­ble, but it’s closer than you may re­al­ize.” In a few years, she said, Face­book hopes to have a sys­tem that al­lows peo­ple to type with their thoughts five times as fast as they now type us­ing a smart­phone key­board.

That is well be­yond the realm of cur­rent re­search, and a num­ber of neu­ro­sci­en­tists ques­tion whether it will ever be pos­si­ble, ar­gu­ing that such speed will only come with de­vices planted inside the skull.

Sev­eral star­tups are now work­ing to do just that. But some, in­clud­ing a Sil­i­con Val­ley startup called Paradromic­s, hope to do this as a way of treat­ing peo­ple with med­i­cal con­di­tions such as blind­ness, deaf­ness and paral­y­sis.

Im­plant­ing hard­ware in the brain is dan­ger­ous, but the re­ward for pa­tients could out­weigh the risks. For com­pa­nies like Paradromic­s, the goal is to sig­nif­i­cantly re­fine and ex­pand the cur­rent meth­ods, pro­vid­ing a faster and more com­plete way for pa­tients to op­er­ate ma­chines with their thoughts.

Musk’s Neu­ralink com­pany is mov­ing in a sim­i­lar di­rec­tion, but its am­bi­tions ap­pear to stretch much fur­ther, to even­tu­ally im­plant­ing chips in healthy peo­ple’s brains.

The dan­gers of brain surgery make this un­likely. But Boy­den said there were pos­si­bil­i­ties. Cer­tainly, many of these projects will be met with skep­ti­cism. And Sil­i­con Val­ley’s en­thu­si­asm does not al­ways mesh with the phys­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions of medicine and the hu­man body.

CHRISTIE HEMM KLOK/THE NEW YORK TIMES

The ’Awak­en­ing’ pro­to­type, de­signed by Neurable, uses sen­sors to read users’ brain waves, al­low­ing them to nav­i­gate a vir­tual world with their thoughts.

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