The world’s first “Written by Mind” tweet appeared. How far is it to play with mobile phones by mind?

"Hello World!"

This is what many beginners will write when they first come into contact with a programming language.

It is also the key to a new world for Phillip O'Keefe, a 62-year-old patient with progressive freezing.

Gradual frost disease is a progressive and fatal neurodegenerative disease. Eventually the brain will completely lose its ability to control voluntary movements.

▲ A short tweet, a huge improvement.

With the help of Synchron’s brain-computer interface, O'Keefe only "written down" the word with thoughts, and sent out simple but meaningful communication signals to the outside world.

To the other end of the screen, he behaved like anyone tapping with a finger.

As natural as riding a bicycle

Synchron, founded in 2017, is a Silicon Valley start-up company in the neurotechnology field, focusing on Brain Computer Interface (BCI).

The "Hello world" tweet was posted on December 23, when O'Keefe took over the Twitter account of Synchron CEO Thomas Oxley for 30 minutes.

In addition to saying hello, O'Keefe also posted another tweet, stating that he does not need to use the keyboard or voice function, and only "think" can post information.

Synchron pointed out that this is the first time someone has spoken directly on social media through BCI. This symbolic moment opens the door for patients to keep in touch with the world.

In 2020, they conducted a similar study , and two patients realized typing and sending texts, but they did not show the process to the public.

▲ Picture from: Synchron

The miracle is Synchron's brain-computer interface device Stentrode-a small stent-type electrode array implanted in the brain through the jugular vein, allowing patients to "move their limbs through thinking and wirelessly control external devices."

Stentrode requires approximately two hours of minimally invasive surgery, which the company says is done in a "widely used angiography kit," similar to placing a stent in the heart.

O'Keefe, the protagonist of the experiment, was diagnosed with frostbite in 2015; in April 2020, he began to implant Synchron's brain-computer interface. Brain activity is collected by sensors in the blood vessels of the brain and transmitted to the computer through the chest device.

▲ O'Keefe. Picture from: Synchron

After the device is implanted, tap the left ankle to call out "mouse clicks"; eye tracking is used to move the cursor.

At that time, O'Keefe had lost a lot of abilities, at least he could control his hand to move the mouse and type slowly.

But O'Keefe had long expected that his illness would eventually develop to the point where he could not type, use a mouse or speak, and his use of brain-computer interfaces would increase over time.

For patients who are completely immobile, the device needs to interact directly with the brain, not just eye tracking or placing buttons on a wheelchair.

▲ Picture from: Synchron

So he actively participated in the latest experiment, "otherwise I will be furious with the status quo."

Fortunately, everyone was happy with the results. Recently, O'Keefe said in a statement that the latest technology has brought him "a lot of independence":

This system is surprising, it requires practice just like learning to ride a bicycle, but once you start rolling, it becomes very natural. Now, I just want to click where on the computer, and then I can send emails, shop or use social media.

▲ Picture from: Synchron

Synchron CEO Thomas Oxley said that their immediate goal is to act on the motor cortex and ultimately hope to "achieve whole-brain data transmission."

The brain may be a data system

In July of this year, Synchron received regulatory approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and it is currently the only company approved to conduct a "permanent implant BCI clinical trial."

At the same time, the race to develop and test neural implants is heating up.

In May of this year , the Stanford University research team combined artificial intelligence software with brain-computer interface devices to convert "mental handwriting" into words and sentences on the screen-a patient with paralyzed limbs imagined writing a certain letter and implanting a sensor in the brain After receiving the signals, the artificial intelligence algorithm transcribes them to the computer screen.

▲The patient imagines the letters. Picture from: Stanford

In the study, a participant called T5 generated text at a rate of 90 characters (or 18 words) per minute. When asked to type example sentences, the character error rate was less than 1%; in free play, the character error rate was slightly higher than 2%.

As early as 2007, T5 almost lost all motor functions below the neck due to spinal cord injury. He let the research team understand that the brain still retains the ability to execute accurately after more than ten years of body silence.

In July of this year, Paradromics, a neurotechnology company founded in 2015, raised US$20 million . The funds will be used to hone its hardware Connexus, which is responsible for converting the brain’s bioelectric signals into digital signals that computers can understand.

▲ Connexus. Picture from: Paradromics

In simple terms, the four modules on the top of the head transmit data to the fifth module implanted in the skull, which in turn transmits the data to the sixth module under the skin of the chest, and finally transmits the data wirelessly to a portable computer clamped on a wheelchair. .

In this way, brain activity is transformed into operable commands, such as moving a computer cursor. A predecessor technology has been successfully tested on sheep, and human experiments will be applied for next year.

▲ Picture from: Paradromics

Paradromics said that one of their advantages is the large number of electrodes, with the number of electrodes on each module reaching 400, which means more ideal data quality and quantity. Matt Angle, CEO of Paradromics, believes that the brain is a data system:

Once you start to realize that the best way to describe the brain is through data, you will redefine many classic, difficult-to-treat diseases. For example, the biological solution to blindness may be to try to regenerate the retina, while our method is to use a computer to transmit visual data to the right part of the brain.

Neuralink, a neurotechnology company founded by Musk in 2016, launched an AI driver chip implanted in the skull.

▲ Picture from: Neuralink

This chip is about the size of a coin and is connected to an ultra-thin flexible wire. Each wire is about 5 microns thick, 20 times thinner than a hair, and contains a total of 1024 electrodes, which are fan-shaped in the brain.

Electrodes read brain activity by sensing or stimulating neurons, and in theory can even write brain activity.

Compatible with the chip is a precision robot, which is responsible for implanting the chip and ultra-fine wires into the brain, which is often difficult for human hands to achieve such stability. The installation process only takes a few hours, and a small scar is left in the end.

▲ Precision robot. Picture from: Neuralink

In April of this year, they used this chip on monkeys. In the demo video , the monkey got a joystick connected to the video game. When it successfully moves the cursor, it can taste the banana smoothie.

▲ Picture from: Neuralink

When the monkey uses the joystick, the chip records its brain activity and sends the data back to the computer to analyze what its brain does when the monkey moves its hand; then disables the joystick, although the monkey habitually controls the game with the joystick. But in fact this process is completely realized by the decoded neural activity.

In theory, the same technology can be used to control prostheses-another "failed joystick". Musk said on Twitter at the time that "it will enable paralyzed people to use smartphones faster than those using thumbs."

A better way to interact with the brain

Musk, who was given the titles of "clown, genius, and industrialist" by "Times", has also made crazy remarks about the potential of brain-computer interface technology:

It can create a "symbiosis" between the human brain and a computer; allow people to "save and replay memories"; treat paralysis, blindness, memory loss and other neurological diseases; enable "superhuman vision", or allow people to call through telepathy Their Tesla.

But brain-computer interface technology is still in its early stages and is far from Musk's vision. Its long-term safety needs to be evaluated in more patients, and there are many challenges that need to be overcome.

First of all, any brain-computer interface device has risks. Over time, the electrodes that enter the tissue may cause inflammation. Developers are studying materials that can be implanted in the human brain for a long time without self-deteriorating or causing infection.

▲ Picture from: hypebeast

Researchers are also looking for other ways to capture brain activity, such as placing non-invasive sensors in the skull or ears, but this also increases the distance between the brain cells and the sensor, which affects the resolution of the recording, and what patients can do More limited.

Second, in order to achieve more activities, the chip that reads the data needs faster speed and higher resolution, the algorithm for interpreting the data needs to be more accurate, and the wires need to be inserted deeper into the brain.

Associate Professor of Neurobiology, Dr. Jason Shepherd, once pointed out that some neurodegenerative diseases are difficult to solve with current brain-computer interfaces because "complex behavior, learning and memory are not only regulated by one area of ​​the brain."

▲ Picture from: Business Insider

Furthermore, as the brain-computer interface matures, some security, privacy, and ethical issues will inevitably arise. After all, it is not impossible in theory to implant chips in the human brain to obtain raw brain data.

At present, the latest work in neurotechnology is to record as many brain cells or brain regions as possible so that scientists can more accurately read the signals that support activities such as speech, walking, and grasping, and then convert these neural records into instructions. These instructions Then enter the robot equipment or return to the nervous system to produce movement, vision and even touch.

▲ Another patient implanted a Stentrode device. Picture from: Synchron

A visible trend is that more and more venture capitalists are paying attention to the field of brain-computer interfaces. Data from the analysis company PitchBook shows that as of July, brain-computer interface startups have raised $132.8 million this year, which is one-third more than the industry raised for the entire year last year.

According to Business Insider, many neuroscience companies are between the development stage and the application stage. It is too early to talk about the development stage, and there is still a lot of work to be done.

At least, people who have been deprived of their athletic ability for various reasons can see the light from it, enjoy the connection, hope and freedom brought by technology, and once again easily type "Hello World".

Grapes are not the only fruit.

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