Let's play it smart on computer interfaces

Brain-machine interface - or the technology to synergize the brain with an external device so the latter can carry out orders, has been frequently featured in sci-fi movies as futuristic fantasy. Instead of...

Assistant Prof. Ma Xiaojuan

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Assistant Professor Ma Xiaojuan, Department of Computer Science and Engineering, HKUST

Brain-machine interface - or the technology to synergize the brain with an external device so the latter can carry out orders, has been frequently featured in sci-fi movies as futuristic fantasy.

Instead of maneuvering with our fingertips, individuals connected to such devices can transmit their thoughts, and the machines would do their bidding like magic.

Recently, an American start-up promised to make this scenario a reality.

A small chip would be surgically inserted into one's brain, which is then connected to a receiver with or without a wire, allowing the user to control things like a mouse or a keyboard.

The company is even aiming to make the implant surgery equivalent to a simple surgical procedure like LASIK where one can walk away within hours.

While this sounds revolutionary for people with disabilities, is the general public ready to sign up for its service?

For years, computer scientists have worked on human-engaged computing with the goal of optimizing synergies between human and computers while maximizing the capacity of both in the process.

For human with disabilities, this may re-empower and help them regain their lost ability or to even surpass their original capability.

For the general public, such as patients in China, human-centered computer interaction such as "Ask the Doctor" services have become increasingly popular, where patients and caregivers can obtain advice from medical professionals at a lower cost.

It helps alleviate the critical shortages of medical professionals in the country.

While the promises above are noble, the reality is that there is still much work to be done.

For starters, scientists still have limited knowledge interpreting brain signals - the idea of implanting a chip would surely make collection of signals easier, but after we have the signals, we still need to solve them.

The challenge of collecting signals without interference, like the blink of an eye, is already enormous, and emotions would constantly affect how a signal can be sufficiently mapped.

Although simple functions such as moving a robotic arm have already been achieved, we have yet to see how brain waves alone manage more sophisticated maneuvers, such as controlling a computer.

Then comes the point of whether intrusive technology is the way to go - any technology the world has directed and come to close contact with human, especially for medical purposes, would always receive scrutiny on the potential danger it poses to the human carrier.

There are concerns involving whether security and privacy is in place to protect the host and how to replace and repair the device when it malfunctions?

More importantly, the bearer of the device might even end up facing social stigma and discrimination.

These are all but a few questions that advocates of the technology must answer if they wish to make their product accepted by the public.

The benefits of making brain-machine interface a reality are self-evident to many.

But a careful and thorough evaluation on cost and benefit must be done to reassure people that the technology's sole purpose is to improve their lives.

This is the final article in a HKUST series on scientific, technological and innovative developments