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Tan Le

HHIT Series Episode 2: Brain-computer interfaces,

with Tan Le

Le was inspired to explore the world of brain-computer interfaces when, as longevity increased, one in three people became impacted by neurological impairments, according to the(opens in a new window)World Health Organisation (WHO).

“That's a staggering number.”    

These conditions include ADD, ADHD, autism, injury from stroke or trauma, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, all forms of dementia and other age-related neurodevelopmental disorders.

The “massive challenge” to preserve our brains runs parallel with the rise in artificial intelligence.

“I felt it was such an exciting, inspiring field to start to pursue. That's what got me hooked into brain-computer interface (BCI) technology because it allows you a vantage point to start to address so many of these complex conditions.”

Noisy Data

When it comes to BCI you “start with the hardware”. EMOTIV has created devices, the latest of which “looks like a pair of headphones”. They measure electroencephalography (EEG) or brain waves via sensors attached to the scalp's surface. Meanwhile, software “allows us to structure data that we can collect from the brain… The phase that we're moving into now is all about looking at large scale data and brain models that we can derive from the data that we've collected now in more than 140 countries.”

Large-scale data is needed because measuring EEG on individuals produces “noisy data”. EMOTIV devices are non-invasive - “there are no probes into the brain” - and measurements from the surface of the scalp are “inherently very noisy” due to muscle activity when people speak or move.

“ This is why large-scale brain data actually makes a really big impact. Because if you're looking on an individualised basis, you don't have a lot of data to correct for some of that noisy data. It becomes very challenging to tease out what you're looking for from the myriad of noise and signal that you're collecting. ” 

EMOTIV supports neuroscientific research worldwide across ageing, Dementia, Parkinson's, autism, long Covid, stroke and trauma rehabilitation.

“All of these are really core parts of what you can explore with EEG.”

The ability to monitor the brain over a long period at home would give people crucial data they can share with their physicians. 


Helping Children

EMOTIV is working with a group of children in Calgary, Canada, who have neurodevelopmental conditions like Cerebral Palsy.

“They have difficulty with movement in some form, and we're able to create really simple interfaces with our devices and the software toolkit to enable the children to draw, to create music, to find new ways to inspire them and to allow them a way to interact with the world. That's very rewarding.”

EMOTIV 's technology can help with autism diagnosis and treatment by measuring cognitive dissonance in children with nonverbal autism.

“From the signature that comes up in the brain as a result of two words that don't really make sense together - like golf and boat - as opposed to words that do make sense together - like sunshine and rain - we can discern that the child actually does understand language, and we can start to tailor treatment more effectively.”

Sensing Scents

Another(opens in a new window)collaboration is with cosmetics giant L’Orealand high-end brand Yves Saint Laurent.    

“They are rolling out an experience called ‘Scent-Sation,’” says Le, of an olfactory activation reaching stores this year that will use BCI to help customers choose fragrance based on how their brains react to base notes.    

“Depending on how your brain responds to that base note, we can predict with a very high degree of accuracy which fragrance to recommend.”

Human Enhancement

BCI's biggest challenge is societal acceptance and an understanding of what the technology can and cannot do. 

“I think with the introduction of any sort of technology like this, one of the hardest things to grapple with is how do you move societal awareness alongside technological development.”

EMOTIV works with non-invasive BCI, but a broader field of invasive neurotechnology is also growing.

While the general public might not object to invasive BCI when it helps restore functions like memory, research and development into its potential to enhance, augment and change what it means to be human causes more alarm. 

“ It's a conversation and a dialogue we need to have at the same time, because it's going to happen within a really short space of time. So how do we usher in technological development in a way that's responsible, that has stewardship, that does engage with the broader community in which we're trying to serve? I think that's the biggest challenge we have with neurotechnology. ” 

The Future

Le expects EEG to become widely used and embedded into various devices such as VR systems, headphones and glasses.

“This then allows us to start to understand how the brain is changing across the whole day and the entire life cycle. From there we can start to build really sophisticated models that can support what we do every day - taking breaks when we need to, supporting us if we've forgotten something.”

These devices can be merged with other fast-growing tools like Siri and Alexa “so that we become symbiotic with our environment and our environment just becomes a natural extension of our brain. So we merge into this environment, which feels very natural as opposed to us and the environment being two distinct things. It’s a very exciting new frontier.”

The next generation may expect AI to respond to their thoughts and predict their needs.

“It will feel like magic.”