The Hype is Real, but the Tech is Not.

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Human-Computer interaction is hard, but our technological interfaces have improved over time. From terminal commands to touchpads, and text to voice interfaces, consumer electronics industries understand that ease-of-use is of the utmost importance to customers. The ultimate evolution of this idea is a frictionless Brain-Computer Interface (BCI).

These interfaces envisage a seductively convenient future: Machines that turn ideas to fully formed papers, gadgets that download memories so you never forget memories so you never forget, implanted devices for a wide array of medical conditions. With such tremendous possibility to break into the tech marketplace, a number of companies are working to make this dream a reality, and they’re getting lots of money for it.

While French gaming company NextMind tries to let users control video games with their $5M disclosed funding, medical device companies like Kernel and MindMaze have raised upwards of $100M to realize dreams of memory extension and neurorehabilitation through Neural Interfaces. Californian NeuroPace has gotten over $200M for their implant that responds to neurological activity. And, despite being intensely secretive, NeuraLink has raised over $27M for claiming to one day provide “super-human cognition.”

These companies make assertions about their products based on sound research. Scientists showed humans are able to control interfaces on screens and even prosthetics using only their mind as early as 1991. Neurostimulation has shown to have profound effects on the ability to perceive empathy and boost cognition. We have even visualized memories based solely on brain activity. This shows significant scientific progress in the field of BCI, but is that enough for these companies to succeed?

Going from a Proof-of-Concept to a product is a perilous journey. Looking at the field of social robotics, there are troubling comparisons, as demonstrated by the rise and fall of Jibo, Aido, Miro, Anki, and all your other two-syllable-end-vowel robotics companies. These companies were based on research from MIT, Oxford, and Harvard that said social robots are socially desirable and medically helpful. They managed to raise staggering amounts of money, often in the realm of $100M or more. They were run by charismatic, successful serial-entrepreneurs. But ultimately, these robotics companies were built on future bets founded on the premise that we have technologies which we just do not yet have.

The magic of BCI, like that of robots, captures the popular imagination. It’s important that someone dreams big and looks to the future – pulls the popular zeitgeist towards the presently-impossible but theoretically-plausible. Going from unimaginable to imagined is no small feat, and these companies are filling and important role in that regard. But, as usual when non-experts are confronted with dramatic future visions, things are blown out of proportion too quickly. While BCIs show intriguing potential to transform future interactions with technology, until any company successfully brings a BCI product to market that consumers can purchase off-the-shelf, assertions of their immediate impact should be met with scepticism. This article in full together with references can be found at: https://www.bna.org.uk/publications/ bright-brains/bb-online/.