Monday, June 9, 2008

new BCI - fi

(I started writing this a couple weeks ago in Austria, and figured I would post it due to the upcoming BCI conference.

The media has again failed in its responsibility to provide accurate and balanced information to the public. Five years ago, I was teaching a class on intro to neuro and a class on BCIs at UCSD summer school. Nicolelis and colleagues got a lot of buzz in 2003 with their invasive monkey BCI and claims that this is 'way beyond anything that was done before.' The better journalists simply bought it without fact checking. The majority suckled it, gnawed, and regurgitated with the naive enthusiasm of a newborn calf. "This is the first time anyone sent a message directly with brain activity." This claim was so obvious that even people in my intro neuro class laughed at it.

Nice to see publicity for BCI research. Andy Schwartz and his team have made great progress, and reported their work more responsibly. But, reporters are again getting tunnel vision. Blog readers and the general public should know that the approach described by Schwartz and colleagues is not the most common, practical, or fast BCI. Similarly, Nicolelis and colleagues (who Schwartz, Taylor and colleagues hate, and with good reason) got trashed by a paper the subsequent year by the Wolpaw lab, which proved that their noninvasive systems with humans exhibited better control, Little Nicky was confabulating, and certainly suggested it was intentional. See also my prior blog post "Justice Once."

On to the key facts. People might assume that whatever technology makes it to the media must be the best. This is not so. On the contrary, the most highly regarded BCI labs eschew publicity and only present their work through conferences and proper channels.

To clarify how the real world of BCI research differs from media portrayals:

1) The substantial majority of BCI work involves noninvasive techniques such as EEG. No drilling holes in the head, no surgery, no pain, no need for any doctor.

2) The substantial majority of BCI research uses human subjects.

3) The clunky 2 dimensional control seen in the Nicolelis and the much better Schwartz videos is remarkable, but below noninvasive systems. The Wolpaw lab has both better 2D control and 3D control.

4) The substantial majority of BCI research does not involve robot arm control. This is a very flashy application, but not the most helpful to patients, and it is not a breakthrough to take any signal and use it to control a device. The hard part is getting a reliable signal from the brain in the first place.

Readers who are interested in this technology are encouraged to explore beyond headlines. Friendly articles about BCIs, including reviews meant for people without a technical background, are easy to find online.

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