Home Tech Brain chips: the Sydney researchers ‘miles ahead’ of Elon Musk’s Neuralink

Brain chips: the Sydney researchers ‘miles ahead’ of Elon Musk’s Neuralink

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Brain chips: the Sydney researchers ‘miles ahead’ of Elon Musk’s Neuralink

BRain-computer interface technology is at the heart of films such as Ready Player One, The Matrix and Avatar. But outside the realm of science fiction, BCI is used on Earth to help paralyzed people communicate, study dreams, and control robots.

Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk announced in January – with much fanfare – that his neurotechnology company Neuralink had implanted a computer chip into a human for the first time. In February, he announced that the patient was able to control a computer mouse with his thoughts.

Neuralink’s goal is noble: to help people who otherwise would not be able to communicate and interact with the environment. But details are scarce. The project immediately raised alarms about brain privacy, the risk of hacking, and other things that could go wrong.

Dr Steve Kassem, a senior researcher at Neuroscience Research Australia, says “tons of grains of salt” should be taken with the Neuralink news. It’s not the first company to make a neural implant, he says. In fact, Australia is a “hotspot” for related neurological research.

Do patients dream of electric sheep?

A University of Technology Sydney project, which has received millions of dollars from the Department of Defence, is now in its third phase aimed at demonstrating how soldiers can use their brain signals to control a robot dog.

“We succeeded (by demonstrating) that a soldier can use his brain to issue a command allowing the dog to reach a destination with his hands free… so that he can use his hands for other purposes” , said Professor Lin, Director of UTS. Center for Computer Intelligence and BCI, said.

The soldier uses augmented reality glasses with a special graphene interface to emit brain signals to send the robotic dog to different locations. Lin says they are working to make the technology multi-user, faster and capable of controlling other vehicles such as drones.

Meanwhile, Sydney company Neurode has created a headset to help people with ADHD by monitoring their brains and delivering electronic impulses to cope with changes. Another UTS team is working on the Dream machine, which aims to reconstruct dreams from brain signals. It uses artificial intelligence and electroencephalogram data to generate images of the subconscious.

And then there are the implants.

Good signal

Synchron started at the University of Melbourne and is now also based in New York. He uses a mesh inserted into the blood vessels of the brain which allows patients to use the Internet, by sending a signal that works much like Bluetooth. People can shop online, send emails, and communicate using technology to control a computer.

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Synchron has developed a brain-computer interface that uses pre-existing technologies such as stent and catheter to enable insertion into the brain without the need for open brain surgery. pic.twitter.com/Cooh77oukU

-CNET (@CNET) September 26, 2023

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Synchron has developed a brain-computer interface that uses pre-existing technologies such as stent and catheter to enable insertion into the brain without the need for open brain surgery. pic.twitter.com/Cooh77oukU

-CNET (@CNET) September 26, 2023

Synchron has implanted the mesh in a number of patients and is monitoring them, including one in Australia. Patient P4, suffering from motor neuron disease, had the mesh implanted a few years ago.

“I believe he’s had over 200 sessions,” says Gil Rind, Sychron’s senior director of advanced technologies. “He continues to progress with the implants and works very closely with us.

“He was able to use his computer thanks to the system…As the disease progresses, it’s really difficult to use physical buttons.

“It gave him an alternative method to be able to interact with his computer – for online banking, communicating with his caregiver, (with) his loved ones.”

Dr Christina Maher from the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Center says Synchron’s technology is “miles ahead” of Elon Musk’s and is more sophisticated and safer because it doesn’t require no open brain surgery. Researchers have also published more than 25 articles, she says.

“With Neuralink, we don’t know much.

“My understanding is that a big priority for them is to test the effectiveness and safety of their surgical robots…so they are much more interested in the robotic side of things, which makes sense on one level from a commercial point of view.”

The need for regulation

However, amid the hype and promises of neurotechnology, concerns arise over who will be able to access useful technologies and how they will be protected.

Maher says it’s about balancing the need for innovation with appropriate regulation, while allowing access to people who actually need it. She says the “disparity between the haves and have-nots” is a topic of discussion in Australia and around the world.

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“When brain-computer interfaces become more common, people will really be separated into those who can afford it and those who can’t,” she says.

Rind says Synchron focuses on those who have the most to gain, like people with quadriplegia. “We would like to expand this as much as possible – we hope we can reach larger markets and help more people in need,” he says.

A personal and pivotal moment for him was seeing the faces of the clinicians, the team and the family of the first patient to receive the implant, he says.

On Neuralink, Kassem warns that there will always be dangers when technology is developed by a company whose goal is to make a profit. “A cell phone plan for your brain is not what we want,” he says.

“What if it was hacked?” There is always a risk if it is not a closed system.

It is more likely that Neuralink uses people’s data.

“Like all apps on your phone and computer, Neuralink will monitor as much as possible. Whatever is possible,” says Kassem.

“It will be stored somewhere.”

Protect brain data

Maher says hacking will remain a risk if devices are connected to the internet, and agrees that data is a big problem. She says much of our social media, biometric and other data is already available, but brain data is different.

“Although (BCI companies) are subject to the same data privacy laws…the difference is in many people’s minds that brain data is quite private, it’s your private thoughts.

“The bottom line here is that once we start recording a lot of brain data, there will be an absolute megaton of data,” she says.

Kassem says that despite concerns about privacy, interacting with the brain offers exciting possibilities.

“We need to remember how powerful and important the brain is…all you are now, all you have been and all you will be is just your brain, nothing else,” he says .

There are billions of neuronal connections in the brain, opening up “unlimited possibilities,” he says, quoting American physicist Emerson Pugh. “If the human brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn’t.”

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