CTRL-labs Uses AI for Brain-Computer Interface
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We’re always being told that the three pounds of grey matter jiggling around in your skull remains the most powerful computer in the world. But consider this: The latest and greatest supercomputer at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee can do 200 quadrillion math calculations per second. It would take us fleshy bipeds more than six billion years to match what that machine can do in a second. And you thought you were pretty swift calculating a 20-percent bar tip in less than two minutes. More than one techno-billionaire has pointed out that man and machine will need to meld in order for the human race to remain relevant. A number of private and public companies are developing various technologies around so-called brain-computer interface (BCI) technologies, also called brain-machine interface (BMI), that will allow us to control things with our minds.
For example, one of the premiere techno-billionaires with that opinion, Elon Musk, has started a company called Neuralink to develop what it calls a neural lace (a hairnet for nerds) that would give the human brain access to artificial intelligence systems in case we need to do a showdown with out-of-control machines to prevent thermonuclear war. Last year, Neuralink raised $27 million toward that goal, and based on what Musk has done so far in 2018, he should probably be the first test subject. Of course, Neuralink is far from alone in developing BCI tech. We highlighted 10 startups last year that are doing all sorts of cool stuff, from the company that has developed a thought-powered virtual reality/augmented reality system that helps with neurological disorders to others that hope to cure insomnia or operate a robotic prosthesis with the mind.
CTRL-labs Uses AI for Brain-Computer Interface
In fact, there are dozens of neurotech companies trying to interface with the human brain. One of the latest is a startup called CTRL-labs that taps into the nervous system to connect mind and machine. CTRL-labs made some noise last month when it announced a $28 million funding round led by Google and Lux Capital, along with names like Vulcan Capital, Founders Fund and the Amazon Alexa Fund. That brought total funding to $39 million.
Update 02/22/2019: Ctrl-labs has raised $28 million to be put toward growing the company’s recently opened research and development lab in San Francisco, and toward supporting its commercial partnerships. This brings the company’s total funding to $67 million to date.
The big brain behind CTRL-labs is a math and computer prodigy named Thomas Reardon, one of those humans who make you question why you’re taking up valuable real estate on this planet. One of 18 children, Reardon distinguished himself by doing such things as taking MIT graduate courses while in high school, before going on to practically single-handedly creating Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser. In 2015, he co-founded New York-based CTRL-labs, a neurotech startup that employs machine learning, a subset of artificial intelligence, to digitize electrical activity from the nervous system, allowing humans to send commands through muscles in their arm using a wristband.
Josh Wolfe, co-founder and managing partner at Lux Capital, does a nice job summarizing how the tech works:
A small band worn around your arm sensitively detects waves of neurons firing, and like software detecting the soundprint of a song in Shazam, it turns it into a series of 0s and 1s. From those signals you can use machine learning and predict that when that signal spikes, you are moving one finger or two or your entire hand and precisely how you are moving it. Without a glove, you can turn your hand into a universal controller, mapping controls and commands to simple gestures. Imagine typing in free space without a keyboard, tapping two fingers to turn on Sonos, flicking a pinky to switch songs, making a tiny motion with your index finger to make the volume louder or softer. You don’t need a screen, a keyboard, a mouse, a switch — just your body.
And here’s a short video featuring Reardon himself demonstrating the CTRL-labs kit, which is being released this year.
Making Money with Mind Control
Playing Asteroids on a smartphone is just a parlor trick. The idea is that the startup’s technology will eventually have numerous applications, from operating in virtual reality environments to controlling robots using just your thoughts. Again, Wolfe offers a nice perspective on the possibilities:
Hundreds of billions of dollars of disruption and opportunity lie in entirely new applications for consumers and enterprises: controlling factory, warehouse and industrial robots; unleashing productivity by unshackling people from keyboards and devices to work with really dense information in ways that make Minority Report look like child’s play. Fortunes made with universal operating systems installed on every desktop may pale in comparison to intuitive, universal controllers.
The opportunities literally boggle the mind.
Brain-Computer Interface Startups Continue to Raise Funds
CTRL-labs isn’t the only neurotech startup to rake in millions of VC dollars recently. We checked up on some of the companies we profiled last February and found a few updates to include:
A 21-year-old company, NeuroPace has developed a medical device that stops seizures before they begin by constantly monitoring brain waves, looking for unusual activity that may lead to a seizure. The device is tuned to an individual’s brain function, sending brief pulses to disrupt unusual brain wave activity within a fraction of a second to stave off a possible seizure. Last October, the company raised $74 million, to bring total disclosed funding to $141 million, up from $67 million in February 2017. A 74 percent reduction in seizures obviously convinced investors that this piece of BCI really works.
A more experiential piece of neurotech comes from a company called InteraXon, which has developed a headband called Muse for meditation. The brain-sensing headband reportedly guides your meditation practice by changing sounds based on the real-time state of your brain. The company claims Muse provides inspiration to researchers at institutions ranging from NASA to MIT. That seems good enough for it to raise an additional $11.6 million last November, for total disclosed funding of $28.8 million.
With a list price of $249.99, this sale at $179.99 may be a good chance to get your hands on the ultimate meditation tool that you’ve always been looking for.
If you’re not sleeping well because you’re not meditating enough, then this company might be able to help. They’re a startup called Rythm out of San Francisco which doubled its war chest last summer when it took in $11 million, for $22 million in total funding. The company has developed Dreem, a $499 headband that recognizes deep-sleep patterns and introduces auditory or sound stimulation to enhance a good night’s sleep so you’ll be ready to meditate the next morning. Of course, you’ll kind of look like a tool wearing it, but who cares. You’ll be getting a good night’s sleep.
Just remember to take it off when you get up in the morning and nobody will ever have to know.
Finally, a new Canadian neurotech startup called Nuro Corp., founded last year, has cobbled together a few hundred thousand dollars to develop a sort of operating system that runs on brain waves and artificial intelligence. The idea behind the NUOS operating system is that AI algorithms interpret a combination of EEG signals from the brain and electrical signals from eyes, allowing a disabled user to “speak” using a tablet or computer interface. Investments include $100,000 from Google and $250,000 from the IndieBio accelerator program.
We always assumed that we would have flying cars before we perfected mind-control devices. But the success of brain-computer interface startups like CTRL-labs is proving that we’re rapidly decoding the human brain, as we simultaneously develop ever more sophisticated artificial ones. Neurotech startups are turning our minds into a universal controller that will one day allow us to communicate and operate machines with just our thoughts. The next step, if paranoid schizophrenic visionaries like Elon Musk have their way, will be to augment our intelligence with the near-limitless power of supercomputers. Meditate on that.