On the massive show floor of CES 2020 in Las Vegas earlier this month, the nondescript booth of French neurotech startup NextMind was, throughout the four-day event, packed with people who curiously waited in line to try on the company’s brain-sensing device—which was said to be able to literally extract your brainwaves, send them to a computer and turn your thoughts into external action without you moving a muscle.
When my turn came, a NextMind employee seated me in front of three white plastic cubes and a smart lightbulb beaming the color green, then strapped a round object with comb-like teeth against the back of my head. Each of these boxes was set up to blink a different color (green, red and blue) controlled by the operator. I was told that, when one of the boxes lit up, my job was just to stare at it, until the lightbulb changed to the same color.
I tried all three boxes, and the lightbulb “listened to” my thought within seconds each time.
So, what happened is that the device placed on the back of my head extracted neural signals from my visual cortex, a brain part located right on the back of the skull that processes what I see with my eyes. The device sent those signals to a computer, which then deciphered them using machine learning algorithms and translated them into lightbulb commands.
The brain-sensing system, properly known as a noninvasive brain-computer interface, is at its core an electroencephalogram, or EEG, a technology widely used in medical settings to record electrical activity in the brain. But unlike EEG machines used in hospitals, which often require special skin preparation, the NextMind device is more of a grab-and-go wearable anyone can throw in their backpack, thanks to a “special material” that’s highly sensitive to electrical signals, said NextMind founder Sid Kouider.
While EEG has been around for nearly a century, scientists were only recently able to decode brain signals into software commands using machine learning in as little as a few seconds. “We’ve got to a point where we are able to extract your attentional focus,” Kouider told Observer. The key is to form a “neural feedback loop,” he further explained, which basically means that you need to concentrate to make the system work.
In the lightbulb demo, for example, it’s somewhere between just looking at the color on the box and thinking about it. Say, if you are looking at a red box but your mind is wandering elsewhere, it will take longer for the lightbulb to change to red, or it won’t change color at all. However, if you are looking at a red box and intentionally thinking about blue, the lightbulb won’t change to blue, either, because there’s no “blue” signals flowing through your visual cortex.
Prior to founding NextMind two years ago, Kouider spent over 20 years in academia doing neuroscience research at prestigious universities from France to the U.S. In fact, the company is a spinoff from his lab at École Normale Supérieure, an elite research institution in Paris, where Kouider has led the brain and consciousness lab since 2008.
The technology NextMind demonstrated at CES is still at a nascent stage, but the potential is infinite. After the lightbulb demo, Kouider assured me that we’ll soon be able to control every home appliance with our brains from meters away.
“You think it’s scary?” he half-joked. “But that’s the future.”
But Kouider didn’t come to CES just to scare people like me. More importantly, it was to introduce the technology to developers (possibly investors, too) who are interested in wider applications. “NextMind offers the platform and hardware, and developers create their own use cases,” Kouider said.