The reality of brain-computer interface is comparable to science fiction. How far are we from electronic immortality?

Estimated read time 7 min read

On March 22, 2024, Noland Arbaugh, the first brain-computer chip implant subject of Neuralink, Musk’s brain-computer interface company, published his first post on the X platform using his thoughts. . Things that look like science fiction movies are actually happening in the real world. The topic of brain-computer interface has appeared in our field of vision more and more frequently this year. However, what exactly is brain-computer interface technology? What can it bring us? How far away are we from realizing this technology?

The actual brain-computer interface itself is very “science fiction”

The concept of “brain-computer interface” has been mentioned in many science fiction works.

For example, in the movie “The Matrix”, the protagonist Neo discovers that the seemingly normal real world is actually controlled by a computer artificial intelligence system called “The Matrix”, and humans in the real world are created by inserting human needs into the real world. Enter the “mother” world by inserting a connector.

Another example is that in “Ghost in the Shell”, portable terminals gradually replaced outdated mobile/wearable technology. Almost all humans have been modified to varying degrees, and many people’s bodies have ports that connect to the network.

In fact, in both form and function, brain-computer interfaces in the real world are similar to those in science fiction works.

Through the brain-computer interface, humans can achieve what they want to do with their thoughts; this is especially important for disabled people with physical defects in reality. They can complete corresponding actions without using their limbs and rely on the thoughts of their brains.

At the same time, the implementation of brain-computer interface can also store knowledge in a USB flash drive and directly input it into our brains. It can turn the whims in our minds into artistic creations, and it can turn some of our abstract ideas into concrete papers. Report.

Perhaps as one Bilibili netizen commented in the video: The era has come for human beings to escape from “physical suffering” and achieve “mechanical ascension”.

In the American TV series “Upload”, the male protagonist is uploaded to the digital world after his death in the real world.

How is brain-computer technology implemented?

Simply put, brain-computer interfaces allow people to use their own brain electrical signals to control computers or other devices. Capturing, deciphering, and converting human EEG signals into instructions that machines can understand is the basic logic of brain-computer interfaces.

The first is signal acquisition. The brain-computer interface collects the electrical activity or other physiological signals of the human brain through sensors. The most commonly used signal collection method is electroencephalogram (EEG), which can record potential changes in the cerebral cortex through electrodes placed on the scalp.

The next step is to preprocess the collected signals. Because the collected EEG signals will be affected by many factors, preprocessing is the process of purifying the EEG signals. Preprocessing includes steps such as filtering, removing motion artifacts, and artifacts to improve signal quality and reliability. Filtering is to filter out bands that interfere with electrical signal recognition, such as the external environment. Motion artifacts are produced by patients’ voluntary movements or physiological movements, which will cause signal blur or ghosting. Artifacts are non-brain-derived in EEG. Electrical activity, it will mix into the electrical signals we need to identify, causing interference.

The last step is feature extraction. This part means that we capture information related to the user’s intention or cognitive state from the pre-processed continuous EEG signals. Commonly used feature extraction methods include time domain analysis, frequency domain analysis, wavelet transform, time-frequency analysis, etc. Select the appropriate feature extraction method according to the specific application and signal type.

Whether the collected signals are clear is the key to whether EEG signals can be used to achieve external control. According to Dr. Ma Yongjie of the Department of Neurosurgery of Xuanwu Hospital, there are three main types of brain-computer interfaces currently being developed: invasive, non-invasive, and interventional.

Among them, the invasive brain-computer interface uses methods such as craniotomy to implant electrodes near the functional areas of the cerebral cortex. Due to direct contact with the cerebral cortex, the EEG signals obtained in this way are the most accurate. However, because it adopts an invasive access method, it will cause greater damage to the human body and may cause inflammatory reactions, Rejection reaction, etc.

The non-invasive brain-computer interface collects EEG signals through the scalp. The advantage is safety. The disadvantage is that the purity and signal-to-noise ratio of the signals collected through the scalp are poor, and the quality is not high.

Interventional brain-computer interface uses a minimally invasive intervention method to puncture blood vessels through small openings, and achieves brain-computer connection through minimally invasive surgery similar to heart stents. The trauma is smaller than that of invasive brain-computer interfaces, and the signal quality is higher than that of non-invasive brain-computer interfaces.

Where should brain-computer interfaces go in the future?

Although brain-computer interface technology is developing rapidly and attracting more and more attention from the public, the emergence of an emerging technology is always accompanied by a series of new problems.

The first is the technical issue. Since brain-computer interface technology itself is an emerging technology and is immature, it still has many obstacles to overcome. This includes obstacles to deciphering complex brain waves and technical obstacles to multidisciplinary linkage. At the same time, as a system engineering, the brain-computer interface includes multiple components of software and hardware, involving microelectronics, neuroscience, materials science, robotics, clinical medicine and other disciplines. Industry, academia, research and medicine are intertwined and interlocked.

Brain-computer interface technology currently only allows humans to control some simple objects through brain activities and complete simple actions, such as a robot hand or moving a mouse. How to apply brain-computer interface technology to a deeper level and achieve more complex functions will take time. Dr. Ma Yongjie also said, “It is not impossible to store human thinking, consciousness, and memory to a certain extent in the future. You can even make your imagination more “science fiction”, such as the direct display of consciousness, driving through consciousness, etc. , it’s not impossible, but it will take a longer period .”

In addition, the future application of brain-computer interface technology also involves legal, ethical and regulatory issues. As an intermediary between humans and the objective world, brain-computer interfaces are not invulnerable, and there is also the risk of being invaded or even taken over by opponents.

Just like in the movie “Inception”, people can invade the sleeper’s dreams through electronic devices, interact with them, and even change the dreams, thereby changing the sleeper’s concepts and thoughts.

What follows is a legal question. What crime should be considered for invading other people’s brains? After the person whose brain has been hacked commits a crime, does it count as a crime? How to distinguish a passive crime that is hacked into the brain, or a subjective crime? These will take time to come up with corresponding countermeasures.

But in any case, the future of brain-computer interface is broader. People’s industrial production, artistic creation, and lifestyle are all likely to undergo earth-shaking changes because of brain-computer interfaces. Maybe we no longer need to go through the long education stages of elementary school, junior high school, and high school; maybe we can experience the world immersively without going out. Anywhere; or perhaps the realization of brain-computer interfaces like in “Cyberpunk: 2077” allows various machines to be implanted in the human body. Human consciousness will exist mechanically forever, and the era of “mechanical ascension” may be far away from us. Not that far away.

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