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SXSW 2023: Connecting Your Brain to Computers

Brain Computer Interface (BCI) connects a human brain to a computer, and it may be in your future. 

The presentation “Hello World: Brain Computer Interfaces at Scale” presented cutting-edge science ideas as part of the SXSW Conference Health and MedTech Track. The SXSW Conference ran March 10-19 in Austin, Texas.

This session brought together four experts in the field of BCI to discuss the background, current status, and future of this technology. Riki Banerjee, of Synchron, with a background in electrical engineering, led the panel. She was joined by neurologist Tom Oxley, also of Synchron, investor/biologist Alex Morgan of Khosla Ventures, and businessman Max Hodak of the company called Science.

Electrical engineer Riki Banerjee, led the panel discussing BCI

What is BCI?

Oxley said that his company Synchron specifically was concerned with “implantable” brain computer interface. He referred to these as a neuro-prosthesis, a device which would restore a function of the body. He explained how early work was done in this area by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration (DARPA). DARPA developed robotic limbs for soldiers who lost body parts in battle. He said, “Then the question becomes, ‘How do you control these new body parts?’ That’s where BCI came in.”

He explained, “Now, as the commercial phase of this industry is expanding, the focus is on ‘How do you treat paralysis?’”

The technology does not require wires running through someone’s skull into their brain, or implanting a chip into a brain through a surgical procedure. Instead, it uses what scientists call the natural highways of the brain – blood vessels.

The chips injected into the veins pick up signals from the brain. The chips then transmit these signals over Bluetooth to external devices which can create the movement of, for example, a mechanical hand.

A Critical Moment

Morgan suggested that the technology has reached a take-off point. He said that typically technologies often develop slowly over decades or centuries, then when just the right ideas come together, they take off. “It basically takes a decade of hard work to become an overnight success,” Morgan said. He suggested that Syncron is at that point.

The Brain Computer Interface panel suggested you will be able to control your world with your mind

Morgan said, “We all now carry around super-computers in our pockets.” He believes that the kind of explosion in use that cell phones experienced could now be in the near future for BCI.

Morgan pointed out that with even more primitive technology, Stephen Hawking was able to write a book.

Where It Is Now

Oxley suggested that the focus should be on what problems potential patients need solved. The current technology, he explained, is like using a remote control to change your password on your smart TV. You have to move around and choose different keys.

“But,” he wondered, “does there come a point where you cross over the line and actually improve on the standard human body experience into another domain. I think that’s a long way from now, but we are working with the FDA and seven patients who are experimenting with different ways to move their bodies.”

Banerjee asked if it was safe to put these kinds of devices into people’s veins.

Patient using BCI to control mouse and keyboard without his hands

Oxley said there was a saying in medical technology that the brain is always 30 years behind the heart. Starting in the 1970s, physicians began to implant stents into the heart. He said that BCI was developing rather quickly because it was built on cardiovascular technology which puts stents and balloons and catheters in the heart. He compared BCI to pacemakers for the brain.

Not Just Movement

Banerjee asked Hodak how his company was advancing in this space.

Hodak said that their approach was somewhat different in that there were many different types of brain signals that could be tracked and interfaced with. He said, “I think you have to start with what products you are trying to build. BCI is a very broad category, not a product in itself. The perspective we have at Science is that all the information flows through just a handful of nerves. What we’re focused on right now is a retinal prosthesis to treat some kinds of blindness, like macular degeneration.”

He said he didn’t believe that healthy thirty-year olds would need these implants. “But, as you age, you cross a threshold and eventually your body is out to kill you. So, these devices will have big impact because we all become patients and will need these.”

To find out more about other SXSW science session and how to attend in upcoming years check its website. The festival also shares highlights of previous years speakers and events online.

About Leo Sopicki

Writer, photographer, graphic artist and technologist. I focus my creative efforts on celebrating the American virtues of self-reliance, individual initiative, volunteerism, tolerance and a healthy suspicion of power and authority.

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