The Brain Interface: the final evolution of UI?

Is the brain the final frontier of user interfaces? How far are we away from controlling our device with our thoughts?

Wouldn’t life be so much easier if we could just think at our devices? Rather than sitting here, typing on my iPad keyboard, I could be relaxing in a comfy chair, thinking paragraphs at my writing app. Some form of brain interface is surely the ideal form?

It does feel like we’re on a journey towards it. The history of computing takes us from the labour of punchcards to the ambient computing of talking to the air and having things happen, via a smart speaker. Is plugging our brains directly into computers coming next?

The digital brain implant

Some companies are certainly trying. Neuralink is pushing towards human testing of its brain implant. It’s not, uh, been going well:

Yet, the company, founded in 2016, didn’t seek permission from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) until early 2022 – and the agency rejected the application, seven current and former employees told Reuters.

The company’s ambitions are huge: they hope being able to interface directly with the brain will solve any number of problems:

We’re aiming to design a fully implantable, cosmetically invisible brain-computer interface to let you control a computer or mobile device anywhere you go. Micron-scale threads would be inserted into areas of the brain that control movement. Each thread contains many electrodes and connects them to an implant called the “Link.”

This should allow you to control your devices with thought and, they say, allow them to restore sight to the blind, and allow those with disabled limbs to walk. In theory. Human testing is a way off.

The Musk problem

Of course, the greatest challenge that Neuralink faces is not technological or financial. It’s reputational. Or, more specifically, their founder’s reputation is likely to be an issue.

Neuralink co-founder Elon Musk has spent much of the last six months squandering a reputation for competence and innovation. His acquisition of Twitter, initially whimsical, and then legally compelled, has led to a chaotic storm of changes and multiple changes of direction. The number of people who’d let this man put a chip into their brains must surely be dropping rapidly.

The Apple Brain

So, if not Musk, who else? Well, Apple seems to be an obvious candidate. Of the last few major UI innovations, Apple has popularised two of them: the windows, keyboard and mouse interface, with the Mac, and the multitouch interface, with the iPhone.

And, interestingly, the sheer invisibility of the “brain interface” would seem to put it straight in Apple’s wheelhouse. As CEO Tim Cook told the New Yorker a few years ago:

“We always thought that glasses were not a smart move, from a point of view that people would not really want to wear them. They were intrusive, instead of pushing technology to the background, as we’ve always believed.” He said then: “We always thought it would flop, and, you know, so far it has.”

Just a few weeks ago, Google announced it was ending production of its enterprise version of Glass, ending the life of the product. Cook was correct.

The vanishing interface

If you think about it, the direction of user interfaces has been ever towards the less intrusive: inscrutable text on screen, replaced by graphical interfaces, indirect input via mouse replaced by direct input via touch.

Sticking a pair of glasses on your face seems to be the opposite of that. No wonder so many people had such hopes for voice interfaces.

And yet, all the rumours suggest that Apple is on the verge of releasing some form of headset, that will take input via eye tracking and motion tracking. The latter half of that sentence feels more Apple-y than the former.

AR as an intermediate step

Cook granted GQ an extensive interview, often a sign something big is coming. And what he said was interesting:

“If you think about the technology itself with augmented reality, just to take one side of the AR/VR piece, the idea that you could overlay the physical world with things from the digital world could greatly enhance people’s communication, people’s connection,” Cook says. “It could empower people to achieve things they couldn’t achieve before.”

The question is, of course, what. And we’ve run into this problem before with emerging tech. The speech interface has not become as pervasive as most of us expected because it turned out to be much more limited. Most people just use smart speakers to control music, set timers and maybe turn on their lights.

But equally, tech can take time to mature. We may be writing off the speech interface too prematurely. Somebody will surely soon couple elements of today’s large language models to a smart speaker, to create one that isn’t so very dependent on your remembering the exact incantation to get it to do what you want.

The path to the brain interface

The big difference in user interface thinking now, as compared to 15 years ago, is that nobody is complacent. Multitouch will not be the last major interface we develop. Speech has yet to truly come into its own — but eventually, it will. Somebody will finally figure out what AR and VR look like in a meaningful, useful way — probably.

And maybe, somewhere in the distance, many of those will be supplanted to some degree by the brain interface. But there are many legal, technical and emotional challenges to overcome before we get there.

As unattractive as the idea of letting Elon Musk physically into your brain is, the prospect of regaining sight, then losing it again when the company behind your implants goes bust, is even more chilling. And that actually happened.

We have decades of sci-fi warning us of the dangers of meshing ourselves too closely with technology, be it Doctor Who’s Cybermen or Star Trek’s Borg. Perhaps we can afford to take our time, and get this right.

Even though I’d rather be thinking this post than typing it…

Photo by Bret Kavanaugh on Unsplash