Chinese researchers have claimed a breakthrough in brain-computer interface (BCI) and brain-controlled technologies by demonstrating the ability to control and interact with electromagnetic waves via brainwaves remotely.
The researchers claim that such a technology would allow humans to beam radio waves with their brains. It could have applications ranging from health monitoring to mind-controlled military radar.
“Our design provides users with a universal way to manipulate electromagnetic waves using brainwaves,” said Professor Wang Jiafu, a leading project scientist with Air Force Engineering University in northwestern Shaanxi province, in a peer-reviewed journal eLight on June 11.
Wang’s team drew inspiration from programmable metasurfaces (PM) capable of generating or manipulating radio waves, which Wang and his colleagues thought could be used to connect brainwaves and radio waves.
While most of the existing PMs are wire connected to users, manually controlled, and not real-time, Wang’s team has proposed a concept of remotely mind-controlled metasurface (RMCM) via brainwaves.
This proposed concept would involve the metasurface being controlled in real-time via brainwaves transmitted wirelessly with the help of Bluetooth, rather than DC voltage from the power supply or AC voltage from signal generators.
“If we can collect brainwaves and use them as the control signals of metasurfaces, we can not only allow the users to control metasurfaces with their mind but also can improve the response rate of metasurfaces. This will make a big step towards truly intelligent metasurfaces,” said Wang in the paper.
The team fabricated an RMCM prototype for an experiment that consisted of a metasurface-control module, brainwave extraction module, Bluetooth wireless transmission module, DC power supply module, single-chip microcomputer module, and other additional wirings.
The researchers used a commercially available brainwave sensor module to acquire brainwave signals, a wearable device consisting of dry electrodes that collect and send brainwaves wirelessly toward the metasurface.
However, radio and brain waves are like different “languages,” so Wang’s team almost programmed the metasurface to translate brainwaves into radio signals.
“Our design provides users with a universal way to manipulate electromagnetic waves using brainwaves,” said the team.
Wang’s team claims their proposed concept and design can be readily extended to other mind-controlled functional or multi-functional metasurfaces. They may find applications in health monitoring, 5G/6G communications, and intelligent sensors.
US-China Tech-War For BCI Technology
It is the latest example of China’s pursuit of BCI technologies to bypass the US, which currently has a lead in this field.
Of late, the interest in BCI technology has been increasing within the global startup community, as this field is at the forefront of a hotly contested tech war between the US and China.
One of the leading American players in BCI is Elon Musk’s Neuralink which has gone so far as to insert a microchip in a monkey’s skull, enabling it to control video games with just its mind.
Neuralink is rivaled by Synchron, a company that has become the first to enroll a patient with its invasive BCI technology in a clinical trial approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Synchron’s flagship technology, called the ‘Stentrode,’ is a BCI implant placed inside the brain to translate brain activity into a standardized digital language to enable hands-free everyday tasks on external devices, including texting, emailing, online shopping, and accessing telehealth services.
The clinical trial will assess the safety and efficacy of Stentrode, which aims to restore functionality to paralyzed people by enabling them to control digital devices using only their thoughts.
While China is behind the US in invasive BCI technology, as acknowledged by the Chinese state-owned media, Global Times, the country excels in non-invasive technology, such as the wearable devices wired with a chip and sensing electrodes, like the one demonstrated by Professor Wang and his team.
First Country To Introduce Brain Control To Space
In March, a team of Chinese researchers performed an experiment at the China Astronauts Research and Training Centre in Beijing on a head-mounted device that could allow astronauts to control robotic equipment using their brainwaves.
Reports at the time suggested that such a device could transform how astronauts operate the giant arm on China’s Tiangong Space Station, which is known to be controlled with a joystick and keyboard.
The existing brain-control technology can control this arm with 40 to 80% accuracy, which is below the standard needed in space. The Chinese researchers claimed their new BCI technology had an accuracy above 99%.
China was the first country to introduce brain control to space during the Shenzhou 11 mission in 2016 when Chinese astronauts Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong used a mind-reading device designed to aid their work.