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  • Lloyd Price

Neural implants and the race to merge the human brain with Artificial Intelligence

There is a new race in Silicon Valley involving Artificial Intelligence and no it's not HealthTech, FinTech, Voice Commerce or involve Google, Facebook or Microsoft... this race involves the brain and more specifically brain-computer interfaces.

This race also involves technology royalty, the US government, billion dollar defence companies, a big connection to PayPal and years of medical research to better understand the human brain and implant devices that could make a consumer brain-computer interface a reality.

The race is called "Neural implants, merging the human brain with AI"

So what exactly are neural implants?

Brain implants, often referred to as neural implants, are technological devices that connect directly to a biological subject's brain – usually placed on the surface of the brain, or attached to the brain's cortex. A common purpose of modern brain implants and the focus of much current research is establishing a biomedical prosthesis circumventing areas in the brain that have become dysfunctional after a stroke or other head injuries.[1] This includes sensory substitution, e.g., in vision.

Other brain implants are used in animal experiments simply to record brain activity for scientific reasons. Some brain implants involve creating interfaces between neural systems and computer chips.

This work is part of a wider research field called brain-computer interfaces. (Brain-computer interface research also includes technology such as EEG arrays that allow interface between mind and machine but do not require direct implantation of a device.) Neural implants such as deep brain stimulation and Vagus nerve stimulation are increasingly becoming routine for patients with Parkinson's disease and clinical depression respectively, proving themselves a boon for people with diseases which were previously regarded as incurable.

Let's meet the companies at the forefront of neural implant research ...

1) Kernel

Kernel is the brain child of multi-millionaire Bryan Johnson, formed with the sole purpose of augmenting human intelligence. Aided by researchers at NYU, MIT, Columbia, USC, and Northwestern University, the company is developing its own hardware and software to treat neurological diseases such as epilepsy, dementia, and Alzheimer’s.

Kernel's primary aim is to develop technologies to understand and treat neurological diseases in new and exciting ways. Once this has been achieved their aim is to interpret the brain’s complex workings in order to create applications towards cognitive enhancement.

Kernel are a team of neuroscientists and engineers who are driven by the belief that exploring the brain is the most urgent and important challenge of this century. They are building from two decades of breakthrough research and working closely with private partners and the world’s best scientists to make the tools that will make the future of neuroscience possible.

2) Neuralink

Neuralink is a US startup company developing implantable human-computer interfaces such as a neural lace. The company was founded in 2016 by Elon Musk and firstpublicly reported on in March 2017. #Neuralink Corp. was incorporated in the US state of Delaware, as is common for many companies, but operates in California. Neuralink is registered in California as a medical research company. The goal of the company, according to CEO Elon Musk, is to augment humans so that they can continue to be economically useful while competing with machines. Similar technology is currently under research and development across universities and institutions. Other companies developing this technology includes Bryan Johnson's company Kernel, Facebook, NeuroSky, Netflix, Thync, NyVind, Neuroverse, Emotiv, and DARPA.

3) Synchron

Synchron, a US based neural interface company, is developing the STENTRODE™, the world’s first endovascular electrode array.

The STENTRODE™ is a minimally invasive implantable device designed to interpret signals from the brain.

The STENTRODE™ may ultimately help diagnose and treat a range of brain pathologies, such as paralysis, epilepsy and movement disorders. It has the potential to fundamentally change the way of life for patients with a wide range of neurological disorders.

U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) provided seed funding for the development of the STENTRODE™ technology.

Synchron is currently preparing for a pilot clinical trial of the STENTRODE™ to evaluate the safety and feasibility of the device to enable patient directed brain control over mobility-assist devices.

Synchron has partnered with numerous world-leading organizations spanning the fields of medicine, engineering and bionics. CEO and Founder, Dr Tom Oxley, is the lab head of the Vascular Bionics Laboratory, Department of Medicine (Royal Melbourne Hospital), University of Melbourne. Dr Oxley led a team of 39 academics across 16 departments to publish a seminal paper in Nature Biotechnology in February, 2016.

Over a number of years, Synchron has progressed relationships with strategic multinational device companies, innovative Global manufacturers and established a commercialization infrastructure within the Silicon Valley Med tech industry.

Hype or Hope?

So is all of this just science fiction, blade runner and one big dream of rich silicon valley entrepreneurs, billion dollar US defence contractors and futurists? No ... the long-standing dream of using Artificial Intelligence (AI) to build an artificial brain recently took a significant step forward in the UK.

A team led by Professor Newton Howard from the University of Oxford has successfully prototyped a nanoscale, AI-powered, artificial brain in the form factor of a high-bandwidth neural implant.

Qualcomm, Intel, Georgetown University, the Brain Sciences Foundation, Professor Howard’s Oxford Computational Neuroscience Lab have successfully developed together the proprietary algorithms and optoelectronics required for a high-bandwidth neural implant.

This major first step forward culminates over a decade of research by Professor Howard at MIT’s Synthetic Intelligence Lab and the University of Oxford resulting in several US patents on the technologies and algorithms used to power the device.

Graphene and the future

A lot of the latest cutting edge development involves designing next-generation neural interfaces with graphene and other two-dimensional (2D) materials. These material possess an array of properties (flexibility, electrical mobility, large surface area available for interaction with the neuronal components and amenable to surface modifications) that can enable enhanced functional capabilities for neural interfaces.

Any neural interface designed for implantation should be as minimally invasive as possible, allow for a facile surgical procedure, and provide efficient and consistent activity for the duration of its functional lifetime.

There are basically three major technological challenges required to achieve sufficient levels of efficacy:

  • Recording capabilities should allow detection of signals of individual neurons (down to few tens of µV) and of assemblies of neurons (inducing field potentials of few hundreds of µV); recording should be possible over large areas (up to few tens of cm2) and with high spatial resolution (hundreds of µm2 of the active recording site).

  • Electrical stimulation requires a minimum level of charge-injection capacity in order to elicit a response in the tissue to be stimulated. Typically, electrode materials should be able to provide on the order of hundreds of µC cm-2 to few mC cm-2, in pulses between 100 µs and 1 ms. Such a large charge-injection capacity should allow focal stimulation with electrodes with active areas down to hundreds of µm2.

  • To minimize foreign-body reaction, electrical neural interfaces should exhibit excellent biocompatibility and mechanical compliance of the neural tissue surrounding the device.

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