Advanced Computing in the Age of AI|Thursday, February 25, 2021
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Brain-Machine Interfaces: A $20 Billion Market by 2027 

AI and autonomous vehicles are en route to consigning human-based heavy machinery operation, trucking, package delivery, rail transport and bus and taxi driving to the dustbin of history, but until that happens, another futuristic technology, brain-machine interface (BMI), is literally tapping into the brains of equipment operators and drivers to detect when they are losing concentration or dozing off, posing a hazard to themselves and everyone around them.

Take long haul trucking. Fatigue and loss of concentration is a major risk factor. Drivers are required by law to take regulated amounts of rest. But this doesn’t guarantee that drivers are fresh and focused. Concentration monitoring techniques have been in use for years, but most are carried out via wearables using optical sensors, which can be inaccurate, or a complex system of cameras, which can be expensive to install, maintain and monitor.

But companies like SmartCap Technologies, an Australian company, have developed a small wearable BMI device called an EEG (Electroencephalography) that drivers place in their hats. EEGs track drivers’ brain waves, which indicate levels of alertness. If sleepiness is detected, bells and whistles go off back at the trucking company’s offices so that managers can contact drivers and instruct them to rest.

Concentration monitoring is one of the most significant areas of industrial adoption of BMI technology, according to Nick Maynard, research analyst at UK-based Juniper Research and the author of a new market study on BMI.

Smartcap Technologies

“Drivers cover extensive distances and shift lengths are long,” Maynard told EnterpriseTech. “There’s legislation around shift times and break times, but those are general rules. They don’t tell you how tired a driver is at a given time. But EEGs, the control room the driver’s state, and if they’re driving to sleep they can intervene.”

Another industry where BMI has found traction is mining and other industrial sectors in which heavy machinery is used – and in which a momentary lapse in concentration poses a risk to co-workers and equipment.

In its study, (Brain-Machine Interfaces – Impact Assessments, Opportunities & Use Cases 2018-2027), Juniper forecasts that global hardware sales revenue from BMIs will reach $18.9 billion per annum by 2027, up from an estimated $2.4 billion in 2018. Medical uses will account for 78 percent of 2027 revenues for advanced uses, such as artificial vision and prosthetic control. BMI for consumer uses such as guided meditation are a small portion of the market, presently under 1 percent in 2018. This proportion will climb to more than 6 percent of a much larger market in 2027, according to Juniper.

BMI (also referred to as BCI – a Brain-Computer Interface) technology translates neuronal information from the brain into commands capable of controlling external software or hardware, or that translates external commands into neuronal information that aids or augments human capabilities, according to Juniper. It’s been under active research since the 1970s, Maynard said, starting at the University of California and funded by the US DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). Since then, most investment and research has focused on the technology’s potential for medical applications, as well as industrial, military and consumer applications.

Maynard said that basic forms of BMI technology have been utilized in the medical field for a number of years principally around the “cochlear implant,” which provides a sense of sound to a profoundly or significant hearing loss. He said the brain-machine interface is partially invasive, with an electrode connected to the cochlea nerve in the inner ear. The electrode then interfaces with this nerve, simulating the sensation of hearing. Maynard said that for patients with additional damage to the auditory nerve or the cochlea, a device can be fitted that transmits feedback straight to the brainstem. , called an ABI (Auditory Brainstem Implant). This system is much more difficult to fit, with more advanced brain surgery required.

While standard hearing aids deliver an average 10 percent sentence understanding to their users, according to Juniper, BMI cochlear implants have an average of 80 percent sentence understanding in audiology tests.

Two of the great health needs – and healthcare market opportunities – that BMI is opening up for healthcare companies are brain-machine

Second Sight

control of prosthetic limbs and for the blind. For our veterans who have lost limbs, enhanced prosthetics would be a welcome development, Maynard said, adding that visual prosthetics is one of the most exciting areas of BMI R&D.

“It’s actually incredible stuff,” Maynard said, citing the Argus II product, currently undergoing testing, from Second Sight Medical Products. “They’ve developed these systems that connect to the optic nerve, it can transfer electrical signals back into the brain based on a digital camera attached to glasses, and there’ve been cases where a blind person has been able to see the sensation of light.””

For now, Maynard said, users can only tell lighter areas from darker areas. “But in the 10- to 20-year timeframe, more information will be transferred. You may have cases where people can become functioning to a higher level and can see more info and really improve their quality of life.”

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