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Big Tech sees neurotechnology as its next AI frontier

Neurotechnology using artificial intelligence is opening up new possibilities in healthcare that previously didn’t exist.

For decades companies and researchers have been exploring implantable devices that interpret signals in the brain and translate them into words or physical commands. The technology is not new, but now, artificial intelligence is accelerating advances, allowing people affected by debilitating diseases to communicate in ways that were physically impossible before.

These devices have been game changers for people like Rodney, a patient living with ALS who had a Stentrode device implanted in his brain. The device, which was developed by Synchron, a neurotech company backed by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Microsoft’s Bill Gates, contains a tiny electrode that converts brain signals into physical actions, allowing Rodney to type on a keyboard using only his thoughts.

While neurotechnology can be empowering for patients like Rodney, AI could make less invasive neurotech more accessible for everyday consumers and spur the next generation of consumer-facing tech products.

According to Precedence Research, the market for neurotech devices was valued at around $15 billion in 2023, and it's projected to reach over $55 billion by 2032. That's a major reason why Big Tech companies like Meta (META) and Apple (AAPL) are backing research into devices that can decode thoughts and perceptions without requiring invasive surgery.

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But as Big Tech moves ahead to build off neurotech advancements in the medical world, experts have cautioned that it could put our most valuable data — the privacy of our thoughts — at risk.

“This is our final fortress of privacy, and we've given up every other aspect of privacy that exists,” said Nita Farahany, a futurist, tech ethicist, and author of “The Battle for Your Brain.”

Elon Musk’s Neuralink made headlines early this year when the company implanted its first human patient with a brain-computer interface (BCI), though the company said on Thursday it encountered some issues with the implant.

The Neuralink implant, which has over 1,000 electrodes and 64 threads, experienced a malfunction after a number of threads retracted from the brain, which decreased the number of effective electrodes. In a blog post, the company said this would not negatively impact how the implant works.

Musk is not the only CEO trying to make neurotechnology a reality. At least 30 companies are currently selling neurotechnology or developing the technology.

BEVERLY HILLS, CALIFORNIA - MAY 6: Elon Musk, co-founder of Tesla and SpaceX and owner of X Holdings Corp., speaks at the Milken Institute's Global Conference at the Beverly Hilton Hotel,on May 6, 2024 in Beverly Hills, California. The 27th annual global conference explores various topics, from the rise of generative AI to electric vehicle trends and features participants, soccer star David Beckham and actor Ashton Kutcher. (Photo by Apu Gomes/Getty Images)
Elon Musk, co-founder of Tesla and Neuralink, speaks at the Milken Institute's Global Conference at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on May 6, 2024, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Apu Gomes/Getty Images) (Apu Gomes via Getty Images)

Apple, for instance, has a patent for AirPods with EEG technology embedded to measure brain activity. Given concerns over Apple’s sluggish iPhone sales, some investors are hoping the company will turn out exciting new products that will drive additional revenue.

Healthcare has long been a goal for Apple. CEO Tim Cook laid out this strategy in 2019, saying, “If you zoom out into the future ... and you ask the question, what was Apple's greatest contribution to mankind, it will be about health.”

Meta is another company funding a team of neuroscientists who are pushing this research further to understand how humans process language.

In one study conducted by Meta's Fundamental AI Research (FAIR) group, researchers flashed an image in front of participants for 1.5 seconds. Users seated in a neuroimaging machine thought of the image they saw, and AI was able to use that brain activity data to recreate the image.

"At the moment, this is not a mind-reading technology," Jean-Rémi King, the lead neuroscientist working on the project, told Yahoo Finance. "What we can try to do is reconstruct the image that they see at the given moment, so we really decode perception."

The results weren’t perfect, as seen in the image below, but they were close enough that the research team initially thought the test was flawed.

On the left is the photo Meta's Fundamental AI Research team showed participants. The image on the right shows the image that AI reconstructed by decoding participants' brain activity.
On the left is the photo Meta's Fundamental AI Research team showed participants. The image on the right shows the image that AI reconstructed by decoding participants' brain activity.

“The first reaction was … let's try to find where we could have had some bugs that could explain the quality of these results,” King said.

King stressed that consumer-facing products are not the end goal of his research, and Meta says its aim is to “help people who have suffered traumatic brain injury to communicate.”

But at the same time, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg has made the company's neurotechnology ambitions clear since 2021, when he began touting an armband that uses electromyography to detect neural signals, allowing users to type and click on a screen with the subtlest of hand movements.

"I think we’ll start getting some consumer neural interfaces soon," Zuckerberg said in April. "I’m not talking about something that jacks into your brain. I’m talking about something that you wear on your wrist."

There's a big question underlying all this research and product development: What does our world look like if Big Tech companies can literally read your mind?

Noninvasive brain-monitoring devices can be revolutionary in medicine for patients, but not everyone is thrilled by the prospect of Big Tech having access to peoples' thoughts.

Neurorights advocates believe our thoughts are the last piece of data we have left to ourselves. That’s why they are now fighting for legislation that would safeguard mental privacy while tech companies continue funding brain-scanning research.

"There's absolutely no regulation," said Dr. Rafael Yuste, a professor of biological sciences and neuroscience at Columbia University. "It's like the Wild West."

29 April 2024, Thuringia, Jena: A test subject wears an EEG cap with electrodes for EEG measurement. On July 6, 2024, electroencephalography (EEG), which was first tested on humans in Jena, will celebrate its 100th anniversary. The procedure measures the electrical activity of the brain and displays it graphically. Photo: Jacob Schröter/dpa (Photo by Jacob Schröter/picture alliance via Getty Images)
On July 6, 2024, electroencephalography (EEG), which measures the electrical activity of the brain, will celebrate its 100th anniversary. (Jacob Schröter/picture alliance via Getty Images) (picture alliance via Getty Images)

After years of research, Yuste discovered a way to control the thoughts of mice using lasers. The experiment scared him so much that he co-founded the Neurorights Foundation in an effort to safeguard thought privacy.

And already, concerns about the privacy implications of neurotechnology are driving policy change. In April, Colorado passed a bill that expanded the state’s privacy act to include neural rights — the first of its kind in the US. Similar legislation is also on the table in states such as California and Minnesota.

“The one space we have for mental reprieve is really our brains and mental states," Farahany said. "It's the kind of final piece of the puzzle.”

Farahany has a proposed framework for neurorights legislation that argues for more privacy overall, with “a right to self-determination over our brain and mental experiences.”

According to Farahany, it would still allow patients who want — and even need — neurotech to have access to it.

For Rodney's part, when I asked him via WhatsApp what he hopes his Stentrode device will accomplish long term, he thought back: “Hopefully, it will get to more people.”

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