Why neurotechnologies that meld mind and machine are the next corporate frontier.
I’m what some people call a neurogeek, passionate about everything related to our brains, from the way they shape our behavior to the way they interact with technology.
Most of you readers probably assume that people like me belong to the scientific and the medical worlds—that we live, eat, breathe, sleep and operate in hospitals and research labs, isolated from the business world. And certainly there’s plenty for us to do there, given the societal impact of brain health. According to the Society for Neuroscience, the Kavli Foundation and the Gatsby charitable foundation, the cost to the global economy of neurological and mental-health disorders such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, including healthcare expenses, loss of productivity in the workplace and impact on families, reached $2.5 trillion in 2010, and could reach $6 trillion by 2030. By then, the economic burden of brain health will be higher than those of cancer, diabetes and respiratory conditions combined.
But neuroscience and neurotechnologies matter far beyond their scientific and medical applications. We are not just our brains, of course. We interact with physical, digital and social worlds that are in turn impacted by how well our brains function, from performance at the workplace to personal relations. That fundamental truth has opened a wealth of interest in neuroscience, in leadership sectors far beyond medicine. I’ll illustrate where that interest comes from, and why, in essays I call “Your Brain On Business.”
The military offers just one example. In 2014, President Obama only half-jokingly announced that the U.S. government was building Iron Man, in the form of a “smart armor” known as TALOS. Soldiers of the very near future will be equipped with brain-computer interfaces allowing them to simultaneously control armor-like exoskeletons and rely on powerful databases, enabling them to be stronger, faster, and more resistant while making optimal decisions.
Science fiction? Ask the hundreds of millions of TV viewers who, that same year, witnessed a paraplegic man kicking off the Soccer FIFA World Cup in Brazil, moving the ball with help from his mind-controlled robotic exoskeleton. For me and a lot of the kids who grew up reading superhero comics, this was one of the coolest things ever. And even if we were far from Iron Man territory—the kick was gentle and slow, the equipment bulky—in the public eye, the neurotech revolution had started. And here’s a sign of how quickly things move in neuroscience: Earlier this year, another paraplegic man, Rodrigo Hübner Mendes, became the first person to drive a race car solely with his mind.
Some might even argue that mind controlled driving is not as impressive as making paralyzed people move their limbs—since for neuroscientists, controlling objects thanks to cutting-edge brain-computer interfaces has become quite common. What is noteworthy in Hübner Mendes’ driving performance is that the device he employed to control the race car – a portable and wireless wearable headset monitoring brainwaves manufactured by Emotiv, a San Francisco-based company that I advise—can be ordered online for the price of an X-Box console.
In fact, it’s already being used by thousands of gamers to move their avatars in virtual worlds with their mind, freeing their hands to shoot monsters. Others use the headset to monitor their sleep or meditate. The automotive industry is using it to monitor the level of attention of drivers and have cars stop automatically or sound an alarm when the drivers start falling asleep. It is being used in other sectors where attention to information is a life-and-death matter, by airline traffic controllers and nuclear plant operators. What was science fiction not so long ago is now just a couple of clicks away from everyone’s mailbox.
And yes, this is a big business. For devices alone, Neurotech Report projected a $7.6 billion market in 2016 that could reach $12 billion by 2020. And today’s hardware market is just the tip of the iceberg, as illustrated by an analysis of more than 10,000 IP filings worldwide by market research firm SharpBrains, in a report to which I contributed. The overall financial impact of such neurotechnologies is tremendous. Overall, if you include the medical uses of neurotech, other devices, and all the businesses that can benefit from brain-related technologies, this is a field that’s generating well over $150 billion in revenues annually.
I hope you’re beginning to understand why my life as a neurogeek does not consist of being locked in my research lab 24/7. Over the past 15 years, I have helped scores of partners apply neuroscience to improve their efforts, working with public authorities to improve preventive medicine campaigns, with health-care providers to better understand the behavior of caregivers and patients, and with the retail industry to assess the gap between what consumers say and what they really do while shopping. I’ve used neuroscience to improve safety measures in transportation, even in nuclear plants, and helped banks train their staff to deal better with stress and improve decision-making processes while trading. I’ve been able to do all of this thanks to insights from behavioral and brain sciences and portable neurotech that allows to collect on-site data. I guess I’m a neurogeek with a strong business twist.
And I’m far from the only person thinking this way. The true revolution has just begun. In just the last few weeks, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg revealed that, in their own way, each is investing time, effort, and significant money to improve our lives with neurotechnologies.
Musk, the CEO of Tesla, announced that he is launching Neuralink, a company “developing ultra high bandwidth brain-machine interfaces.” This new breed of neurotechnology will allow the merging of the human brain with the power of machines in order empower humans to keep up with artificial intelligence. We are not only talking about being able to beat computers at chess again but to boost our information processing and creativity–to accelerate medical discoveries that cure cancers, for example. And at F8, the developer conference for Facebook, the company shared that it’s working on scalable neurotech that will allow silent brain-to-brain communication.
When one man who has disrupted the energy, automotive and space industries, and another who connected nearly 2 billion individuals in the same social network, make major moves in neuroscience, somehow it feels like science fiction is evolving into history, and that our lives are about to change in unprecedented ways.
Olivier Oullier (@emorationality), PhD, is a neuroscientist and a strategist.