OpenBCI – Brain-Computer Interface Tech for the Masses
We at Nanalyze believe the Fourth Industrial Revolution—the convergence of all kinds of cool technology with our economic, social and even biological systems—is the most exciting time to be alive since at least the invention of Ziploc storage bags and the TV dinner (both in 1954, by the way).
Seriously, though, even our imaginations sometimes struggle to dream of what humans will be capable of doing in the next 10 to 20 years. We write a lot about artificial intelligence (AI) and how it will transform the future through sheer computing power. But it’s human intelligence, which AI aspires to mimic, where the potential of our species resides. The merger between mind and machine—usually referred to as the brain-computer interface—is not just a matter of time but possibly vital to our very evolution and survival.
What happens, then? Oh, just stuff like communicating using only our minds, writing novels using only our minds, and moving robotic limbs using only our minds. Memory will become nearly infinite. Goodbye to diseases like Alzheimer’s. Hello to your annoying friends who quote the dialogue of every movie ever made.
A Little Background on BCI
The thumbnail definition of BCI, also sometimes referred to as brain-machine interface (BMI), can be summed up as follows: direct communication between the brain and an external computing device (though the device may also be directly inserted into your grey matter). There are different areas of application, broadly split into neurofeedback (monitoring brain activity), device interaction (controlling your mobile phone remotely, for instance) and brain enhancement (turning you into a super genius). For a more in-depth understanding of what we’re talking about here, read this article. And then check out this article on how implants will augment the brain. Finally, check out what startup companies are doing in these different applications.
Going Big on BCI
Done? Good. So, if you’ve done your homework, you’ll have to read about Bryan Johnson’s $100 million startup called Kernel that is using AI to understand HI (human intelligence) and memory, with the long-term goal of enhancing long-term memory. Elon Musk, the billionaire who is reinventing transportation, energy, space travel and the Hair Club for Men, is also jumping into BCI tech with yet another new company called Neuralink. Fearing for humanity’s ability to compete with AI in the future, Musk is taking the approach that if you can’t beat them, join them: Neuralink will enable human telepathy while also allowing us to tap directly into cloud-based AI as easily as we surf porn the internet today. (Check out this very long, graphically illustrated explanation by cartoonist and blogger Tim Urban about Nueuralink here.) Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook similarly wants to take sharing cute cat videos to the next level with developing its own version of Neuralink. That effort is being led by Regina Dugan, who used to head DARPA, the R&D branch of the Department of Defense and the agency behind every X-Files-type conspiracy theory regarding aliens and anal probes.
In other words, there are some serious players and money pushing humanity towards a cyborg future. You can sit out the next few years and read about the breakthroughs as they happen, waiting your turn to plug into the Matrix. Or, starting for as little as $199, you can buy the electronics to conduct your own bio-sensing and biofeedback experiments thanks to Brooklyn-based startup OpenBCI. Electrodes and cables sold separately.
OpenBCI’s name pretty much says it all: The company offers a low-cost, programmable, open-source bio-sensing platform that allows anyone with a computer to access their brain waves (EEG) and other bio-rhythms such as heart (ECG) and skeletal muscles (EMG) for fun and profit. We don’t know much about their funding model aside from the fact that in 2013 DARPA threw about $100,000 at a project called High-Quality, Low-Cost, Multi-Channel EEG System for Non-Traditional Users that involved co-founder Joel Murphy, a professor at New York’s Parsons School of Design. Murphy brought on student Conor Russomanno, who co-founded OpenBCI. A couple of Kickstarter campaigns around the same time raised nearly $385,000.
The company generated quite a bit of news until about 2015 when it seemed to fade from the headlines. Our request for an interview a couple of months ago was begged off. A follow-up request went unanswered. Still, we’re intrigued by OpenBCI’s open source platform, which seems to put collaboration before cash. We’re not the only ones. The company has appealed to thousands of DIY’ers interested in studying and using electrical activity produced by the brain and other parts of the body, which led Russomanno to tell Fast Company that OpenBCI “should be body-computer interface because it can do muscle and heart and all that.”
Here’s a member of the OpenBCI community using OpenBCI hardware to control a toy robot using his brain.
The Community Page on the OpenBCI website is filled with similar projects that members share. A team in Hong Kong used brainwaves to help those with disabilities to manipulate a mobile phone using only their minds and a specially built app. A project called WAVR claims to apply neuro controls through OpenBCI hardware to send commands to a virtual reality application. Looks like they even spent the $349.99 for the 3D-printed headset. And then there’s the more … artistic uses of brainwaves. Check out the crazy isht below that’s a mashup of neuroscience, art and Japanese rope bondage. No nudity but definitely NSFW.
Can’t wait to perform your own contortions with your cortex? Check out the OpenBCI shop for a complete list of its hardware and accessories. Though looks like there’s a two-week delay on orders as the company says it’s in the “process of changing fulfillment centers.”
While we doubt that Murphy and Russomanno explicitly founded OpenBCI for kinky mind sex, we think you get the idea. By providing open-source hardware cheaply and fostering the creation of open-source software, OpenBCI has created a sort of virtual incubator space for BCI technology and applications. Sure the Musks and Zuckerbergs of the world will be the ones most likely to put their brands on whatever BCI technology that finally emerges. But the everyday engineers and geeks—Oculus Rift, anyone?—are sometimes the ones with the billion-dollar ideas. Just don’t get roped into thinking it will come tomorrow, even if both Musk and Facebook promise breakthroughs in just a few years. Even futurist Ray Kurzweil, who has an uncanny way of predicting such things (an 86 percent accuracy rate), thinks the merger of man and machine won’t happen until the 2030s.
“In the early 2030s,” Kurzweil told Singularity Hub, “we are going to send nanorobots into the brain (via capillaries) that will provide full immersion virtual reality from within the nervous system and will connect our neocortex to the cloud. Just like how we can wirelessly expand the power of our smartphones 10,000-fold in the cloud today, we’ll be able to expand our neocortex in the cloud.”
Now that’s mind-blowing.
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