Home Column - Tuesday Our Brain-Machine: Making the most of you and I, By Ngozi Bell

Our Brain-Machine: Making the most of you and I, By Ngozi Bell


The Brain Machine Interface or Brain Computer Interface is not a new phenomenon, but one that has been going on for decades. UCLA researchers received grants from National Science Foundation and DARPA to do this work in the 1970’s and published their work.

Why is this even possible? The simple answer is that more than any other part of the human, the brain functions much like a computer does, except with many more sensory inputs and much more complex combinatorial capability. The more we study and implement our systems to mimic the brain,  the smarter, more competent  our computers have become. Combining that with the massive volumes and lightning speed operations of super computers, scientists believe computers could approach a near infinite capacity to always do many things in many ways for many reasons. However, what computers do so well in volume and speed, humans make up in reasoning, nuances, real-time thinking and processing, in our ability to interject seemingly unrelated items to our real-time decision matrix. Our ability to concatenate emotions to mundane situations and recall the past in contexts that are uniquely ours and overlay our decision process to past situations that might seem irrelevant and so much more. Additionally, as we dial in the neurodivergent versus the neurotypical, the permutations of potential outcomes bring along  a fresh layer of relational perspective, compulsive and impulsive insights and imaginations that impact the decision and activity cortex in a brain. The brain complex has been modelled in many scenarios and conceded as complex and inexhaustible. At a task level, there is much that a computer can help people do, but at a life level there is much more that a computer cannot replace the brain on. 

So, enter the Brain-Computer Engagement. Combining both to achieve more for the impaired, creating an extension for the human body to relieve excessive physical exertion, extending engagements way beyond the proximal and distal points of the human body; perhaps this is the area that benefits most in all the scientific developments.

What is Brain Computer Interface/Brain Machine Interface?

This phenomenon goes by a litany of names of which BCI/BMI are the most common, other names like Human-Computer Interface, Mind-Machine Interface, Neural-Control Interface and Direct Neural Interface are also used interchangeably.

The anatomy of the brain is complex but holds some important tools that make this possible; that is the ability to transmit electrical signals which is what computers leverage and interpret into all types of functionalities and activity. Before we go further, let us do a very basic primer on the brain’s activity engine, its neural network. 

The Brain’s Neural Network

The brain has neurons which are singular nerve cells that interconnect through a system of nodes called dendrites and axons. Every activity that involves the brain such as thinking, moving, feeling, recalling, problem-solving etc. utilises those neurons. The dendrites that project out of neurons act as ingress ports that bring information from other cells into the neuron. The axon which are much longer in length act as egress ports which take information away from neurons to other cells. Some of the brain’s complexity comes from the fact that with use, the brain maintains, retains, and creates new dendrites and axon connections. Basically, the brain gets more connected and better with use. New axons and dendrites take less than two weeks to form, the more we learn the more our neural network is strengthened and learns expertise in that area. 

A neuron or nerve cell is made up primarily of a soma (cell body), dendrites (branch-like projections) and the axon (a trunk like projection that terminates to web-like tentacles); a healthy brain has more than 80 billion neurons and each one is connected to over 1,000 other neurons to achieve a connection capacity of over 60 trillion. Despite this, the organisation of neurons is not haphazard, but instead is organised as network (essentially patterns) clusters that communicate flawlessly and at spectacular speeds with each other. This is collectively referred to as the Brain’s neural network – you can start to imagine the magnificence, complexity, and unparalleled capacity of the brain’s neural network. Neurons in the brain and spinal cord are organized into what are known as the central nervous system (CNS) and the peripheral nervous systems (PNS)

This figure below  is courtesy of dana.org

What do computers mimic in trying to behave like and/or connect to the brain? 

The brain contains chemicals called ions that hold negative (anions) or positive charge (cations). As these ions move across the cell membranes, in and out of the neurons they affect the electrical charge of the neuron. The neuron’s body (soma) in its rest state is negatively charged (about – 70mV), however a stimulus such as a cold wave, fear, a jab or a strong odor etc. immediately arouse the neuron to admit an influx of positive ions which adjusts the polarity of the neuron to becoming more positively charged. Research shows that as the neuron approaches -55mV; the potential difference caused by this change activates a phenomenon called an “action potential” which causes the neuron to “fire” by travelling the length of the axon to the axon terminal. At this point the electrical signals are converted to chemical signals. The chemical signals can then travel across the synapse (a small gap between neurons) to attach to nearby dendrites. Those chemical signals are called neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters attach to the dendrites via receptors (look like pads found on the dendrites). That process of attachment  is called activation, akin to a “key/lock” system (much like a software key unlocks a file or folder). Once this task is completed the “key” or neurotransmitters are recycled (they are reabsorbed and reused by the nerve cel that released It in a process called reuptake). This process is pretty amazing.

This process of transmitting information across neural networks, or from neuron to neuron is responsible for all actions from breathing to extreme sports, from thinking to acting, from eating to speaking and everything in-between that engages the brain.

The Computer Brain – Using Artificial Intelligence (AI)

This entire brain network is what computers mimic in creating the Artificial Intelligence complex via the development of Artificial Neural Networks (ANN). ANN can be broken into ANI (artificial Narrow Intelligence or shallow intelligence – most of what we know and use today fall here), AGI (Artificial General Intelligence – this is known as strong intelligence, the ability to leverage and carry out cognitive activities on a human level, humanoids fall in this category – leveraging computer vision, convoluted neural networks to mimic human sensory behaviour. This of course is a herculean task because as we discussed, the brain has more than 80 billion neurons with each one connected to more than 1,000 other neurons for a whopping 60 trillion plus connections —reaching that would no doubt be a great feat – even without the nuanced states that have yet to be explored),  and finally Artificial Super Intelligence (ASI – This is the concept that the computer becomes self-healing, self-improving and can top human intelligence, resulting in it becoming self-controlling and dominating, possible dominating humans – this of course has sparked many conversations and disciplines involving ethics in AI etc.). 

In general Artificial Intelligence is the application of computer science to very large and robust data sets to achieve functionality that mimic human behaviour using past data sets to predict future behavior and to problem solve in many areas.

In Brain Computing Interface, it is quickly recognised that combining the inexhaustible capacity of the human mind with the task-oriented capability of computers results in a win-win that is leverageable right away.

The BCI Opportunity

Simply put a brain-computer interface is a system or machine that allows for signals to be sent and received and processed by interpreting them for the brain or the external machine. Our brains filled with neurons could potentially take advantage of the extension and reach that BCI brings. 

How do we harness brain information today? 

EEG – Electroencephalography, ECG – Electrocardiography, EMG – Electromyography all leverage  electrodes to access brain, heart, and muscle signals mostly externally, but in some cases internally. They do this by measuring minute voltage differences between neurons, the signals are then amplified, filtered, captured and interpreted and then displayed on a computer system or used as input to an action, like to move a wheelchair, write on a screen, move a limb. Probes placed externally on the body, can have some the electrical signals blocked, and distorted by the skull, heart complex and muscles respectively.

For best receptions, the probes that access the neural signals may be placed at the site of reception by implanting electrodes under the skull or within the brains grey matter, heart, or arm/leg muscles, and significantly increase proximity to where the electrochemical signals are generated. To be clear this comes with challenges and potential risks because such procedures are invasive, costly and over time, scar tissue that form over the devices may block and distort the signals much like with the external placements.

BCI is implementable in the reverse as well,  when a signal generated by a computer is used to stimulate the brain’s neural network. For example, to implement an input sensory BCI for sight, a computer converts a signal from a video camera into specific voltages that are then transmitted to the BCI device implanted at the required brain site. Once the device receives the transmitted signal, this action causes the targeted neurons to “fire” (see the process described in the section above about how the brain works), thereby causing the person to receive an image in their brain equivalent to what the camera is seeing. This gives the person artificial sight.

BCI continues to grow in applicability with the advent of cortical plasticity (the continuous adaptability and flexibility of the brain regardless of age), thus implying that BCI applicability is nearly limitless and not encumbered by age. Brain injuries and age-related neurological issues are a strong area for BCI and are also more prone in older people and have huge opportunities for solutions. Major applications currently making their way into markets today include mobility applications like brain-controlled wheelchair, robotic and prosthetic arms and legs; cognitive applications using thought control and brainwaves like brain-controlled helicopters, keyboards and passwords; in addition to visual sensory inputs are cochlear implants to rectify impairments in hearing etc.

BCI holds so much promise though much of its opportunities are still in the research phase, but suffice it to say that there is also much more work ahead because of three things; i. The brain with its 80 billion plus neurons and 60 trillion plus connections is incredibly complex and so the ability to fully leverage it is truly inexhaustible. The brain has both electrical and chemical processes, the chemical processes would require a different set of tools to access. ii. Access to clear brain signals is still a challenge whether done externally or invasively; finding smart ways to improve proximity and continuity of signal access is far from ideal and will continue to be pursued. iii. Portability is improving and must continue to do so with the leverage of wireless and proximal applicability to point of signal access. 

It is notable that scientists like Okezue Bell have made some headway in using proximal and wire-free design strategies. In the development of his smart prosthetic arm called the “WeArm” for transradial amputees Bell leverages BCI technology to achieve significant mobility with no visible wires on proper fitting https://www.okezuebell.com.

BCI is not only promising, but could become one of the most meaningful aspects of the human – computer engagement

About Ngozi Bell

Take a listen to this podcast Say It Skillfully® OUR VOICES – Ngozi & Okezue Bell, Carpe Diem! Tuesday, April 5, 2022 (voiceamerica.com)

Inspiration, Hard Work, Innovation. These three foundational elements anchor Ngozi’s core belief that manifesting the extraordinary is always within reach. Inspired by her mother A.C.Obikwere, a scientist and author, she learned the privilege of living at the edge of important encounters and dedicating herself to robust and perpetual learning. Ngozi’s background is a combination of Physics, Engineering, Venture Capital/Private Equity, regulations, and business where she has managed over $1B in cumulative revenue. Ngozi is a speaker, storyteller, and writer on a diverse set of topics including AI, iDLT, ML, Signal Processing, iOT, women, entrepreneurship and more. She contributes regularly to VOA, has been a TEDx speaker and is published on tech and non-tech platforms. She is a champion of STEM, women, youth, art and the Africa we must engage. Ngozi is an adjunct professor of Physics and management with work

experience in Asia, Europe, Africa, Middle East, and North America. She is a founder of a number of a number of enterprises and host of the podcast Stem, Stocks and Stews (https://anchor.fm/stemstocksstews-podcast).

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