New brain-computer interface technology is giving quadriplegic and tetraplegic patients the ability to control computers, thought type at 90 characters a minute, and move robotic arms to feed themselves, or high-five family members. Built by Blackrock Neurotech and including technology licensed from Stanford University, the technology is scheduled to come to market this year, and will enable up to ten times faster communication than existing products.
And, it can even allow brain-computer interface pioneers to feel the warmth of their loved one’s hands in a handshake.
Controlling objects with our minds is science fiction, seemingly.
Except … that’s precisely what pretty much every human on the planet does every single day: we think, and our arm moves. Our neurons fire, and our toes grip the ground. We formulate thoughts and our mouths open, and we speak.
For some of us, however, the critical link between brain and body has been severed by disease or accident, and thoughts no longer drive actions.
That’s where brain-computer interface technology comes into play. Connecting technology to our minds is a multi-billion dollar space growing to over $5 billion in value by 2030 and including both invasive products that utilize direct neural interfacing as well as non-invasive technologies like magneto encephalography and electrocorticography. Elon Musk’s Neuralink is a player in the invasive side of the business, having raised over $350 million in capital, and the US government’s DARPA project has backed multiple projects here.
But to people who can’t make their bodies do what their minds want, all the technology and dollars boils down to the capability to live and act and move and communicate again.
To regain what has been taken.
“This technology … picks up signals directly from individual neurons, takes that data out of the brain, does something cool with it, sometimes brings it back into the brain, and the effective outcome is that … a tetraplegic patient can move a prosthetic arm around, grab a glass or a canned bottle of water, and then drink themselves again for the first time since having tragic accidents,” Marcus Gerhardt, co-founder and CEO at Utah-based Blackrock Neurotech, told me recently on the TechFirst podcast. “It can allow a person who can’t communicate, let’s say an ALS maybe locked-in patient, to use this interface to communicate again.”
The company’s decoder algorithms can recognize and translate symbols, virtual keyboard and handwriting movements from thought patterns into communicable text, Blackrock says. This means they can now control a computer mouse, a chair, a robotic arm, or even a vehicle.
Blackrock Neurotech works with neuroscience researchers at Johns Hopkins, Caltech, and Brown and has been building brain-computer interface devices for over a decade, with some patients getting implants all the way back in 2012.
A microchip, dubbed the Utah Array, literally connects to patients’ brains with tiny pins acting as radio antennas to pick up individual neuron’s activity and acquire data from them. The data gets decoded by a control module using no fewer than five patented machine learning software decoders and then actuated in the physical world, in the case of a robotic arm, or on a computer, in the case of thought-to-text typing, or mouse control.
Additional sensors take data from the world and feed it back to the brain, offering real perceptual input that people have long since lost.
“For example, Nathan Copeland has sensors on the front of his prosthetic hand, and he shakes a hand and he feels that the hand is warm because that warm temperature is sent right back through into his brain, telling him that the prosthetic hand that he is controlling is touching a warm hand,” Gerhardt says. “So it’s restoring the sense of touch and of feeling.”
According to the patients — or pioneers, as Gerhardt prefers to call them — the process is intuitive once trained, requiring no more effort to move a robotic arm than for anyone else to move the arm they were born with.
The impact is transformational.
Being able to communicate needs is critical. Being able to communicate with loved ones both near and far is also critical. The ability to move, eat, even work again is also massive — and has personal, psychological, as well as financial implications.
In a very real sense, it’s the return of freedom: even to drive a car, perhaps, in the future.
“It can be connecting them to all sorts of different — we call them affectors — things that they want to affect to improve their independence, increase their quality of life,” Gerhardt says. “It could be to connect to a car and have them drive a car with their thought alone.”
There’s one pioneer who is now back at university and is studying to be an accountant, and Blackrock is looking for ways to connect him directly to Excel.
That’s a massive step, because the company estimates the lifetime healthcare bill for a fully tetraplegic patient below the age of 30 is somewhere between $3.7 and $5.4 million. Giving people more independence means less of a need for full-time in-person care, and being able to work means severely-paralyzed people can get jobs, earn salaries, and pursue goals that previously might only have remained dreams.
“What if we were able to halve that cost because they are now independent, they improve their quality of life, they are reliant on a healthcare provider only half the time or a quarter of the time,” Gerhardt says. “What if we could get these individuals to return to the workforce and not be perceived as a burden on society. I feel we have, in fact, an ethical obligation to make sure this happens.”
The product is scheduled to come to market this year.
Pricing has not yet been finalized, but the company says that “the cost has to be in line with what the healthcare industry is generally used to,” and something that would fit within insurance reimbursement or at least be in reach for crowdfunding campaigns.