Insider News from our digitalswitzerland challenge

In 1984

At twenty-two years of age, my younger brother’s world and future irrevocably changed when he sustained a traumatic spinal cord injury (TSCI) in a motorcycle accident. He was left paralyzed from the neck down. 1984 tech helped make his diminished quality of life tolerable. But more importantly, advancing innovations in medical technology offered hope.

Hope that one day his desires – the signals in his brain – might once again communicate with his torso, arms and legs. Hope that one day, he could sit up unaided, get out of bed, run across a football field or return the bear-hugs lavished on him by family and friends.

Reports in Nov. 2015, from EPFL (École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne) of a tech break-thru for TSCI sufferers would have given him thrills. Despite arriving too late (he died in 2014), EPFL’s commendable news undoubtedly fuelled fresh hope to hundreds of thousands of disabled like him, renewing their dreams of regaining mobility and dignity.

Monkey brain

In their findings, published in the scientific journal Nature, a rhesus monkey regained use of its legs, just six days after a paralyzing injury. The solution was a wireless “brain-computer interface,” (BCI) connecting an implant in the primate’s brain to an electrical stimulator on its spine. By translating the monkey’s movement-related brain signals into electrical pulses on its spine, the technology assisted the monkey’s brain, sending its legs instructions to move — leap-frogging the injured part of its spinal cord.

More than hope

Giving more than just hope to the disabled is only one objective of a new bet, “Brain-Controlled TV,” in Season Two of digitalswitzerland’s challenge. I spoke with its Bet Captain, Martin Kathriner, to understand the odds whether this bet can deliver on its wager as stated:

“Until June 2019, the team wants to demonstrate a TV only to be controlled with the brain.”

Martin explained, “The first impact is for people with disabilities, the paraplegic and tetraplegic, who can use this idea to control a smart TV.” He pointed out smart televisions like Samsung’s, are now a hub for smart homes, and because TVs can talk to other devices, it all leads to an IoT (Internet of Things) approach.”

Alliance with AI

Even before France banned smartphones from schools this summer, people were becoming increasingly uncomfortable in their relationship with technology. Exploring humans’ explicit and implicit alliances with technology are the second major impact Martin expects their bet to make, by stimulating discussions on how we interact with machines. He said, “We talk a lot about the human to machine interaction – but how do people feel when they interact with machines?”

Because regardless if we’re comfortable or not with brain-controlled devices, the future is already history. “Using EEG (electroencephalogram) sensors to measure brain activities is a very old idea, Martin clarified, “In 2018, everybody is talking through their devices … this interaction between us, human beings and machines’ algorithms, will become more important. Controlling a device simply with the brain, that’s very futuristic but is part of human machine interaction and at the end of the day, it needs to be a good.”

Translating taste to TV

Compared to empowering a quadriplegic to walk, or helping an amputee manipulate a prosthetic limb, a bet developing BCI technology to surf Netflix on your television may seem like an underachiever’s ruse. Martin suggested seeing their bet in a different light: “Imagine you’ve had an accident. And imagine a world where you are in a hospital, unable to speak, severely injured, maybe disabled. Now imagine a nurse coming into your room, he sticks a sensor behind your ear and suddenly you can control the TV with your brain activity!”

Earlier, we discussed how our brain signals a sour taste when we bite into a lemon, and “ouch!” when hit on the head. In the context of brain-controlled TV, he urged me to not to limit the BCI possibilities. He offered a comparison: “… if you bite into a lemon, the TV moves up a channel, if you get kicked in the head, the TV channels down. Now, replace the lemon and kickboxer and things start to be very exciting.”

Bona fide BCI rock star

Presently, the bet’s champion is Samsung Electronics. When I questioned if other players were on board, Martin confirmed, “We are partnering with Professor José Millán from EPFL.” In case I didn’t recognize his heavyweight collaborator, Martin continued, “José Millán is THE global rock star of brain-computer interfaces.”

His EPFL faculty bio confirms Martin’s conviction is well-founded. It states, “José del R. Millán is the Defitech Professor at EPFL where he explores the use of brain signals … In this multidisciplinary research effort, Dr. Millán is bringing together his pioneering work on the two fields of brain-computer interfaces and adaptive intelligent robotics.”

Harnessing human thought

Prior to our interview, José suggested I could get up to speed from articles on EPFL’s website. One of many was a critical review of “Mental Work,” a project he co-founded in 2017. Realized as an exhibit, visitors can experience what it’s like to control (and power!) industrial revolution era replica machines using thought alone. In the story (and video) Josè states, “We would like to generate a societal debate about this cognitive revolution which is about to come. What is the place of BCI, if any, in the future cognitive society that we are moving towards?”

The Mental Work project and Brain-Controlled TV bet share Josè’s desire for harnessing human thought and the intentions which compose a thought. José elaborated, “Can we even go farther and give these people with severe motor disabilities the possibility to interact directly by their brain signals? Because even if they have a motor disability, they still have brain signal functions. Can we tap onto them? Can we decode their intentions by simply analysing brain signals and turn those brain signals into the actions that they cannot accomplish?”

Already outside the box

Brain-Controlled TV was a late entry to the challenge race in 2018 but is now charging hard to its June 2019 finish line. Martin hopes larger Swiss hospitals will partner with them to test their new digital innovation. Given this bet’s new status, I asked Martin what other types of collaborators are sought? He said, “We need people in Switzerland who are not sitting in a box. We need cross sector thinkers. We need IT zealots from health institutions, Linux loonies, EEG sensor device evangelists, unconventional thinkers, industrial design enthusiasts, soldering professionals and …”

Say what? I interrupted. Soldering professionals??? Martin quickly said, “That’s a joke.” But then his conscious spoke up and he admitted, “maybe it’s a joke – but I’m also dead serious. Because I don’t only need strategists and super-duper software engineers, I need people who can do anything.”

For a last word, I corralled Martin by asking, ‘Is this just a wild crazy idea or do you really think that you can deliver? He laughed good naturedly, either because of my naïve understanding of his character or the joy he’s getting from working on this bet (or both) and said, “We will build it. It’s a bet and I hate to lose. We can do it and we will do it!”