Much like any typical twentysomething American, he opens and reads his email, remotely controls the television, and plays video games. Unlike any typical twentysomething American, this quadriplegic is performing the above tasks using only his thoughts.
Earlier this year, Cyberkinetics Neurotechnology Systems announced they had received FDA approval for a pilot test in humans of their “BrainGate” Brain Machine Interface (BMI) device. The first successful trial with the 25 year old quadriplegic was announced at the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation annual conference last Friday. The interface allowed the patient to operate machines with his thoughts. The BrainGate device is a chip pressed directly onto the surface of the brain. It can read the signal from up to 100 neurons, and then stream the data from the chip through wires that exit the brain through the skull. These wires are attached to computers that decipher the patient’s thoughts and take a particular action (such as moving a cursor on the computer monitor). The accuracy is currently at 70 percent because of the low number of neurons sampled by the device. The computer equipment requires a hand cart to hold it all.
With Moore’s Law continuing unabated, more powerful computers taking up much less space are only a few years away, suggesting the emergence of future BMI technology that can sit behind the ear and work wirelessly. The pace of BMI technology advancement is breathtaking. Only last November people were debating the impact of this technology after successful tests with monkeys at Duke University; now the debate is renewed with the first successful human trial. Cyberkinetics Neurotechnology Systems plans to implant the technology in four more human volunteers.