David Ryder/Getty Images, Patrick Pleul/Getty Images, Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
- Tech moguls like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Bill Gates are investing in brain-implant startups.
- They’re “always intrigued by things that could change the game,” an investor said.
- Brain scientists say brain-computer-interface research has made exciting progress in recent years.
The idea of connecting computers directly to our brains is moving from fantasy to reality, and some of the richest and most powerful men are pouring money into the space, chasing a vision that the technology could one day upend healthcare — and everyday life as we know it.
Through their venture-capital funds, Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates both recently backed the Brooklyn, New York, startup Synchron, which has tested its brain stent in seven humans.
Elon Musk has become the public face of the brain-computer-interface (BCI) industry with his headline-grabbing claims about the potential of his startup Neuralink, even as experts stress that his company’s neural techniques are ordinary, at best.
BCIs have been around for roughly 50 years, but until recently, the technology was largely relegated to lab studies and one-off experiments. (More than a decade ago, people wearing BCI caps were already playing pinball using only their minds.) Over the past several years, BCIs have moved from the clinic into people’s heads, homes, and lives, becoming true assistive devices.
Synchron has developed what is perhaps one of the sleekest, most minimally invasive BCIs: It’s a tiny stent fitted with mind-reading electrodes that is ferried up through a key blood vessel to sit next to and communicate with the area of the brain that we use to produce voluntary movements. Synchron’s chief commercial officer told Insider that its device could commercially launch in a few years, if clinical research went well.
“Every single day, there’s some fabulous, new, really powerful insight,” Christopher Moore, a neuroscientist and associate director of Brown University’s Carney Institute for Brain Science, said. “It’s just a treat to be a part of this field right now.”
While today’s research is focused chiefly on using these brain implants in the heads of patients with serious medical conditions like total paralysis, or imagining ways to treat diseases like Parkinson’s, the possibilities for linking brains with computers extend far beyond healthcare. That long-term potential has caught the attention of tech billionaires like Musk, Gates, and Bezos.
“Elon, Gates, and Bezos are always intrigued by things that could change the game,” Robert Nelsen, a biotech investor at Arch Venture Partners who’s invested in Neuralink and Synchron, said in an interview.
Brain implants are moving from fantasy to reality
Philip O’Keefe uses his Synchron Stentrode to operate a computer with his mind.
Paul Burston, The University of Melbourne
A brain-computer interface cuts out the intermediary between your computer and your mind.
By recognizing predictable brain signals, BCIs essentially read your thoughts to achieve concrete actions, like clicking a mouse. That’s how Philip O’Keefe, an Australian who was implanted with Synchron’s device in 2020, uses his BCI to play games online, exchange WhatsApp messages, and turn the lights on and off at home.
O’Keefe has ALS, a degenerative condition that makes it hard for him to use his fingers and hands, but he now has no problem using his mind to get around online.
“Whatever you can do on a computer, I can do,” O’Keefe recently told Insider using his BCI. “At this stage, I am a bit slower than you would be, but there is the ability to do almost anything — if I want to.”
Learning how to use the tech takes months of training, during which both the BCI and the person using it learn to reliably perform and interpret key thoughts: Click here; move there.
The possibilities of BCI aren’t limited to computer clicks or mechanical movements, though.
BCIs are also being developed to diagnose brain issues and treat conditions including depression through deep brain stimulation. They could also help unlock secrets to how our brains work, giving scientists a chance to peer inside our heads and look at our neural circuitry in real time.
“People are reading out brain-area activity patterns and detecting epilepsies before they can hit,” Moore, the Brown neuroscientist, said. “There’s a clear, human, clinical application coming.”
There are also applications beyond healthcare, such as video games, security, and creating more-powerful soldiers.
BCI industry captures the imagination of tech moguls
Kevin Dietsch / Staff / Getty Images
The BCI industry has attracted investment from a who’s who of tech moguls, including Musk, Gates, Bezos, Thiel, and Vinod Khosla. While most of these billionaires invest in other biotech ideas, tech moguls have an outsize presence in BCI, which remains a niche part of biotech.
No BCI startup has gone public, and most of their fundraising rounds have been modest compared with larger and more-mature biotechs.
The computing element of BCI is also an “obvious bridge” between computers and medicine for people with a tech background, Arch’s Nelsen said. The data from BCI research projects can easily appeal to executives more used to looking at computer code than interpreting biology experiments.
“People think of the brain as the most advanced computer out there,” Kurt Haggstrom, Synchron’s chief commercial officer, said in an interview. “What tech person is not going to want to learn and be able to tap into it and understand how it works?”
The emperor has pants but no shirt — yet
Despite the excitement, Moore said BCIs couldn’t collect data capturing the full spectrum of what our brains do. BCIs are focused almost exclusively on electrical signals that are firing in the brain. But there are many components to how our brains work that are not measured through BCIs and remain critical to brain function and how our thoughts create behaviors.
“It’s not that the emperor has no clothes,” Moore said. “OK, the emperor has pants.”
While BCIs can observe, interpret, and even adjust what the neurons firing in our brain are doing, they don’t capture the whole complex picture of all the dynamic, nonelectrical (and still poorly understood) cellular networks in our heads that may have an effect on how we process information and behave — everything from what happens inside our blood vessels to how specialized cells called astrocytes communicate.
BCI is “obviously a huge part of the puzzle,” Moore said, adding: “But think of all the potential dynamics we could record in these other systems in the brain.”