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Brain-computer interfaces are no longer a thing of science fiction

Endovascular BCI company Synchron has implanted its device in a US patient for the first time, bringing the ground-breaking technology a noteworthy step closer to distribution.

With our reality feeling more and more like Black Mirror incarnate every day, it’s not often that I’m taken aback by news of the latest technological advances.

From the enigmatic growth of the metaverse and wising up of existing Artificial Intelligences to the various digital solutions being put forward in the face of climate change, I’ve made peace with the fact that I’ll likely witness a great deal more of this remarkable innovation during my lifetime (even if it does occasionally instil a sense of absurdism within me).

However, upon learning that brain-computer interfaces are no longer a thing of science fiction – or, more fittingly, straight out of The Entire History of You, an episode set in a future where people’s audio-visual senses are recorded allowing them to rewatch their memories – I won’t deny I was stopped in my tracks.

Devices that act as an intermediary between the human mind and computers are inarguably dystopian, after all.

Yet according to Synchron, the company behind the ground-breaking tech it recently implanted in a US patient for the first time, BCIs don’t have to be as ethically dubious as Black Mirror would have us believe.

This is because Synchron’s primary goal is to provide anyone who can’t move and speak with the power to communicate online just by thinking.

The estimated 5.6 million people living with a form of paralysis in America alone who can’t always access the virtual world that many of us regularly take for granted.

Working by eavesdropping on the signals emanating from the brain and converting them into commands that then enact a movement, the implant – which is called a Stentrode, has a mesh-like design, and is the length of an AAA battery – promises patients the ability to control a mouse and use it to click, so they can surf the web and use all of its services.

Brain-Computer Interface Smashes Previous Record for Typing Speed - IEEE Spectrum

And although the technology itself isn’t novel (it’s actually been around for a couple of decades with Elon Musk’s failed attempt to get it off the ground in 2020 being the last time it made headlines), Synchron’s device stands out in particular because it’s non-invasive.

Currently, the only other BCI approved by the FDA for testing in clinical trials is the Utah array, which requires cutting open the scalp and drilling into the skull to implant.

Synchron’s, on the other hand, is implanted endovascularly, meaning the Stentrode is placed into a blood vessel in the motor cortex.

Insertion involves cutting into the jugular vein in the neck, snaking a catheter in, and feeding the device through it all the way up into the brain, where, when the catheter is removed, it opens up and nestles in.

Synchron Announces First Human U.S. Brain-Computer Interface Implant | Business Wire

The Stentrode is then activated to read the signals when neurons fire in the brain, amplifying those signals and sending them out to a computer or smartphone via Bluetooth.

Now, despite how complicated (and slightly nauseating) that sounds, most neurosurgeons are already up to speed on this approach, which reduces a high-risk surgery to a procedure that could send the patient home the same day.

For this reason, Synchron is considered a leader in the field.

The next step, therefore, will be to prove that its technology has the potential to significantly better the lives of those who choose to use it.

The ethics of brain–computer interfaces

If this goes to plan, Synchron will be permitted to make a case for BCIs to be made available to as many people as possible, namely those who have had strokes and spinal cord injuries, or who have multiple sclerosis among other conditions.

At present, however, the technology remains in its early stages of development, and the trial is meant to focus more on how the human body reacts to the implant and how clear the brain signals are than on the functions a person can perform with the device.

‘I feel like we are at the beginning of a renaissance around brain decoding so what I want the world to understand is that this technology is going to help people,’ says Synchron’s CEO, Thomas Oxley, who dreams of ‘a million implants a year,’ which is how many cardiac pacemakers are implanted annually.

‘There seems to be a theme around the possible negative aspects of this technology or where it might go, but the reality is that people need this technology, and they need it now.’