Brain-Computer Interfaces Reach Limited Viability
Military funding has driven advances in interfacing the brain’s motor functions with computers. Commercialization in medicine and entertainment is now testing whether a new industry will be born.
In April 2021, Elon Musk’s brain-computer interface company Neuralink debuted a video of a monkey playing the classic computer game Pong, not with a handheld controller, but via wireless electrodes implanted in its brain. The monkey, named Pager, originally learned how to play Pong on a traditional joystick. After the Neuralink implants were installed, when Pager would imagine the use of that joystick, the spikes of activity in areas of the motor cortex corresponding to the hands and arms would be translated into computational algorithms, which would then control the game.1 While Musk’s company is as usual the flashiest in the industry, Neuralink is far from alone. A number of research projects and companies have been pursuing brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), supported by unflagging investment from the U.S. government, especially the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which has spent an estimated $760 million on the field since the 1990s.2