Electronic devices that interface directly with the brain are now being produced by labs around the world but each new device tends to work in a completely different way. An article in Technology Review argues that we need an agreed neural operating system so brain-machine interfaces can more easily work together.
Although current devices tend only to measure brain activity or stimulate cortical areas, it won’t be very long before devices typically do both – detecting and reacting to neural states – possibly forming a dynamic network of electronic devices that regulate brain activity.
To avoid the ‘Mac vs PC problem of the brain’, neuroscientist Ed Boyden highlights the importance of having devices that speak a common language to avoid both wasted scientific effort and potentially dangerous miscommunication.
Some examples of this kind of “brain coprocessor” technology are under active development, such as systems that perturb the epileptic brain when a seizure is electrically observed, and prosthetics for amputees that record nerves to control artificial limbs and stimulate nerves to provide sensory feedback. Looking down the line, such system architectures might be capable of very advanced functions–providing just-in-time information to the brain of a patient with dementia to augment cognition, or sculpting the risk-taking profile of an addiction patient in the presence of stimuli that prompt cravings.
Given the ever-increasing number of brain readout and control technologies available, a generalized brain coprocessor architecture could be enabled by defining common interfaces governing how component technologies talk to one another, as well as an “operating system” that defines how the overall system works as a unified whole–analogous to the way personal computers govern the interaction of their component hard drives, memories, processors, and displays.
Although not mentioned in the article, another advantage of a common platform for brain devices would be security, as current devices as often completely open and designed to be easily controllable from the outside.
Link to TechReview article on ‘Brain Coprocessors’.