Humans have been dreaming of a futuristic age when we have the ability to control machines and the world around us with merely our thoughts for decades. Neurotechnology startup NextMind believes that it has a part to play in inching us a little closer to that capability with a new piece of technology — and without implanting a chip into the brain.
The company created a big buzz at CES 2020 with its brain-computer interface (BCI) kit, a wearable that would retail for around $400 and allow the user to control functions in their digital devices with their thoughts. It may not be on the same level of mind control as Luke Skywalker, but it’s still pretty cool.
The man behind NextMind is Sid Kouider, and his wearable clips onto the hair in the back of a person’s head — or on their cap if they happen to be bald like Kouider. The device which is about the size of a plum and weighs 60 grams, uses software that records brainwaves from the brain’s visual cortex. A machine-learning algorithm then deciphers those brain waves and translates them into commands.
“We are really focalizing directly on the cortex,” Kouider told VentureBeat. “We decode neural activity in the cortex noninvasively. Users must be actively looking at something for the brain’s visual cortex to send out the signals, but the capabilities are extraordinary.
Users who have tried out NextMind can shoot ducks on Nintendo’s classic game Duck Hunt, change the colors on a set of smart lights, or unlock a digital safe — all by simply concentrating. Kouider hopes that eventually, his NextMind device will allow people to send a text message by simply thinking about it and operate any digital device with only their thoughts.
“We have a pretty good understanding of how the brain works, and especially how visual consciousness, perception, attention works,” Koider said. Once a person focuses on a task, NextMind can “know that you want to move that specific content or activate that specific visual content.”
The company is expanding on the work of previous mind-control efforts and others are also developing the technology.
NextMind is hardly the first BCI. In fact, BCIs are used in hospitals to help study tremors associated with Parkinson’s disease or treat the loss of motor functions due to paralysis. Only thankfully, there’s no need to drill into the brain. The device is actually comparable to an electroencephalogram, or EEG that would be used to record the brain’s electrical activity in a hospital — minus the gel used to attach electrodes to the head.
CTRL-Labs is another company working on the next generation of BCIs. It also has a noninvasive neural interface, that uses an armband to capture signals from our nerves. Wired writer Arielle Pardes tried out the device and used it to make a digital dinosaur perform maneuvers, all by twitching her arm. What separates CTRL-Labs’ device from others like NextMind is that it uses the motor cortex, which is the part of our brain responsible for movement.
Despite most BCI development focusing on the motor cortex in the medical world, Kouider believes the visual cortex is where the future lies. Facebook is banking on the former and acquired CTRL-Labs for nearly $1 billion in September 2019.
What are the ethical issues at stake regarding this technology?
We’re lightyears away from a culture where brain-implanted computer chips are the norm. Still, the mind is such a vast mystery that with each new technological development, the ethical issues regarding the privacy of our thoughts becomes even more complex.
Developing technology to be used in hospitals to help with Parkinson’s or paralysis is one thing, allowing a company to tap into the brainwaves of potentially millions of users is a different ballgame. People are already uneasy enough with Facebook monitoring their web activity, the idea of a company monitoring their thoughts might just be too much to handle. Ariel Garten, the founder of the neurotechnology company InteraXon, founded the Center for Responsible Brainwave Technologies for precisely this reason. “The goal is to create a set of standards to ensure that everybody’s data is kept safe at all times and that the technology is used appropriately,” Garten told Scientific American.
Silicon Valley engineer Mary Lou Jepsen who founded Openwater, a startup that is working on a device to measure brain activity says that she’s optimistic about how such technology could help people with disabilities. At the same time, she’s cautious of the razor-thin ethical line such technology presents. “The only way we’re going to release something is if we have ways to define what it means to be responsible.”
For now, NextMind is more of a fun gadget than it is world-altering tech.
Photos via YouTube and NextMind