With the help of an implanted brain chip, a monkey can type out words on a computer screen or play video games using only its mind! It sounds like science fiction, but in fact it's real, thanks to the brain-computer interface (BCI). And in six months, the technology will be tested on humans!

Although research into achieving such an astonishing breakthrough began decades ago worldwide, it wasn't until recently that BCI has become accessible to mass consumers with more user-friendly designs to wear. Investors are also drawn to the new $200 billion market as emerging startups race to churn out commercialized products.

Biology and medical research give the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region an advantage in developing the BCI sector, which could become a platform for transforming our society. And experts are taking it further, urging that bolder and timelier steps be taken as long-term investment strategies.

Electrical activity in the brain was first detected about a century ago when the German psychiatrist Hans Berger recorded the world's first electroencephalography. Scientists later learnt how to implant an electrode grid over the cortex, the outermost layer of a brain, to collect neural signals and translate them into digital information. In the early days, the technology was used to identify regions of the cortex that generate epileptic seizures; later, digital information could be programmed to control real-world interactions, such as language and robotic limbs, as a way to replace the human body's common neural pathways and muscles.

For the first time, in 2012, a patient with tetraplegia could reach out and grasp a bottle of water using a neurally-controlled robotic arm. However, the medical devices were relatively big and connected to a real-time computer with a data wire, creating medical risks.

Vincent Cheung records electrical activities from his own arm muscles. The recorded signals are shown in real-time on a computer screen. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Global race

The main challenge now is to create smaller, wireless, and more convenient gear for patients to wear. Once the technology matures and is commercialized, it could spawn not only a series of medical wonders, but also open up novel communication channels for people, as well as new forms of entertainment beyond our wildest dreams, such as Metaverse.

Global management consulting firm McKinsey & Co expects bio-machine interfaces to generate $70 billion to $200 billion annually in the next 10 to 20 years.

The US and the European Union have made hefty investments, both financial and in terms of resources, in BCI research, with launches of the BRAIN Initiative and the Human Brain Project, respectively.

International technology frontrunners are also jumping on the bandwagon. In 2016, Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk co-founded San Francisco-based Neuralink Corp, which aims to design a "fully implantable, cosmetically invisible" BCI to enable people to control a computer or mobile device wherever they may be, according to the company's website

International technology frontrunners are also jumping on the bandwagon. In 2016, Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk co-founded San Francisco-based Neuralink Corp, which aims to design a "fully implantable, cosmetically invisible" BCI to enable people to control a computer or mobile device wherever they may be, according to the company's website.

In November this year, the entrepreneur showed a video of a monkey, with an implanted brain chip, typing out words on a screen using only his mind. Musk said the startup should be ready to test its technology on humans in six months.

China is also catching up fast in this area, and announced the launch of the China Brain Project, or Brain Science and Brain-Like Intelligence Technology, in 2016, with BCI playing an essential role.

The Shanghai municipal government recently unveiled a plan to encourage the development of BCI technology and build an industry cluster in the city. And Tianjin University has unveiled a software system called MetaBCI – the nation's first open-source software platform for BCI research.

Major universities in the HKSAR too have begun research on neuroscience at the Gerald Choa Neuroscience Centre of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, as well as the Department of Neuroscience established in 2019 by the City University of Hong Kong, and the Neural Interface Research Laboratory at its Department of Electrical Engineering.

"Medical students, particularly, are more interested in neuroscience. It's amazing that medical students at both the University of Hong Kong and the CUHK have decided to set up a joint Hong Kong students association on neuroscience, trying to engage young people in neuroscience," says Vincent Cheung Chi-kwan, associate professor of the School of Biomedical Sciences at the CUHK.

Cheung's research is to understand how the brain and the spinal cord control a person's movements. "Every human body has more than 600 muscles, and coordinating them for different movements is very difficult from the engineering perspective," he explains.

"Our approach is like the alphabet in English. We can use these 26 letters to create an infinite number of English words. Our idea is that the brain has an alphabet of movement. All we need is to find the right ones and create the right combinations when learning a new movement."

Cheung has applied the method to rehabilitate chronic stroke survivors. If walking originally requests letters x, y, and z, and a person can only walk with difficulty when "x" is missing, his strategy is to supply the expected letter, so that the person can at least train with the right alphabet combinations, and with the hope that stimulation can teach the nervous system to relearn the original combinations of the alphabet.

"We've finished treating the first batch of patients, and they really feel it's promising and are excited," says Cheung. His team is exploring the possibility of commercializing the technology, but he says details cannot be disclosed at this stage. The professor suggested that Hong Kong should create an environment where failures can be accepted and taking risks is encouraged, instead of focusing too much on the results.

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Li Xiaojian co-founded a startup in Shenzhen which claims
to have independently developed technology for a fully implantable brain-computer interface system. (CHAI HUA / CHINA DAILY)

Great promise

Professor Lo Yuk-lam, president of the Hong Kong Bio-Med Innotech Association, found that many BCI-related projects are emerging in Hong Kong and he's discussing investment prospects with some startups. "Investors' interest is growing for two reasons. First, we need new investment directions, considering the current Sino-US trade and technology frictions. Second, the stagnant stock market is pushing us to early-stage projects." The investment cycle for BCI projects is at least five years. Moreover, having seen many applications on the market, investors are more confident in taking the plunge when it comes to this sector.

According to Lo, the HKSAR government has made bold moves to fund such fundamental and strategic scientific research. In his 2022 Policy Address, Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu said the government has earmarked at least HK$10 billion ($1.28 billion) to encourage the commercialization of research and development outcomes. He believes the BCI industry will be able to benefit from the policy.

Hong Kong has a solid neuroscience research foundation to develop the BCI business, and is well-positioned to draw from the latest achievements on the Chinese mainland and abroad, as BCI is a cross-disciplinary subject that requires resources and talent from the fields of biomedicine, artificial intelligence and engineeringļ¼Œ says Professor Lo Yuk-lam, president of the Hong Kong Bio-Med Innotech Association

Lo says Hong Kong has a solid neuroscience research foundation to develop the BCI business, and is well-positioned to draw from the latest achievements on the Chinese mainland and abroad, as BCI is a cross-disciplinary subject that requires resources and talent from the fields of biomedicine, artificial intelligence and engineering.

Cheung and Lo stressed the importance of cooperating with the mainland. One benefit is that scientists now can apply for funding on the mainland; another is the substantial clinical resources there, says Cheung. "In just a week at Xiangya Hospital at Central South University in Changsha, Hunan province, we found quite a number of patients who allowed us to observe and study."

In Shenzhen, BCI research and products have also attracted a great deal of attention. "Prior to 2021, many investment firms still regarded BCI as magic in science fiction," says Li Xiaojian, who returned from Northwestern University in the US to China in 2018 to establish a laboratory for Brain-Computer Interface and Neuromorphic Intelligence at the Shenzhen Institute of Advanced Technology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Recalling the early days after he returned to the mainland, Li said he'd been placed in the same category as science fiction writers at interviews and forums. However, he sees that the trend has been changing since last year and fundraising activities are now more active.

Li co-founded a startup in Shenzhen in 2019 – We-Linking Medical Company – which claims to have independently developed the full technology for a fully-implantable BCI system, including the 512-channel-level ECoG (micro-electrocorticography) electrode grid, which is as thin as 10 microns, and the Application Specific Integrated Circuits chip to convert neural signals into digital data, as well as an integrated system for the signal recording and algorithm to process these signals.

"We're applying for clinical use and expect the ECoG to replace or upgrade the conventional ECoG in three years," says Li. The fully-implantable BCI system is expected to enable motor-disabled patients to restore some of their motion control.

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Phone in the head

BCI originated from medical research, but the ultimate destination for it is open to speculation. Wildest conjectures are that it will bring about a complete change in the way people live, communicate, entertain, and even how they experience the world at a brand-new sensory level.

According to Musk, the future of BCI is like putting a phone in people's heads. "We're confident that someone who, basically, has no other interface to the outside world, would be able to control their phone better than someone with their hands working."

Compared to the invasive system in medical use, another form of BCI – the non-invasive approach, which attaches sensors to the brain skin – has taken a dramatic leap forward, beyond addressing medical disabilities.

MindAmp – a Hong Kong startup – has developed an earphone-based BCI to help people meditate easier and enhance their learning efficiency.

Moreover, BrainCo Inc – a BCI startup on the mainland – entered the mass consumer market this year with products, costing about 2,000 yuan ($286), to improve sleeping and ease anxiety, in addition to the company's intelligent prosthetic hands and legs.

BrainCo said it has secured a $200 million investment, almost equivalent to the $205 million raised by Musk's Neuralink last year. Han Bicheng, founder of the startup, believes the non-invasive BCI products market is hundreds or even thousands of times larger than that for invasive BCI products, which require craniotomy – although only the latter can treat diseases like epilepsy.

"It's possible that all users around the world could mentally communicate through BCI in the future. At that time, it would become the ultimate format of the metaverse," predicts Li. However, he believes there's still a long way to go before the technology can be used to treat some mental diseases, or to provide so-called sensory simulation, which some have come to expect from the metaverse, including gustatory simulation.

The difficulty lies in advancing the pace of brain science. In the human brain, motor and sensory functions are controlled by the cerebral cortex, the failure of which would lead to paralysis, auditory or optical disability. This area of the brain is mostly mapped and it is relatively easy for an electrode grid to be implanted there, but the functional areas in the inner side of the brain which control gustatory, tactile and other senses, still remain unknown.

"We're at the point that we haven't had breakthroughs for a long time in neuroscience. But, right now, many new technologies have emerged rapidly. They're available for us to record the brain's functions and analyze the data from the brain," says Vincent Cheung.

He believes a breakthrough is imminent.

"The technologies, probably, are already here or about to come. It's just a matter of realizing how to use them to unlock the mystery of the little organ."

Contact the writer at grace@chinadailyhk.com