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The human brain as the next tech platform.
The secret reason why we’re both interested in Neurotech is because it’s probably our best chance to get our own ‘dysfunctional’ brains fixed (nothing bad, just being a bit crazy). And our hopes are high as plenty of researchers, big companies and startups are innovating at every layer of the stack:
Hardware layer: a variety of approaches are tested to see which BCIs (Brain Computer Interfaces) are the best not only to record what’s going on in our heads and extract “data”, but also to “inject data” and act on our brains. From invasive devices implanted directly in the brain to non-invasive ones such as headbands or VR headsets.
“Operating System” Layer: extracting data / signals is only one part of the equation. We also need to interpret it. And that’s the aim of several companies which seek to build the first brain / computer middleware. These middleware will enable developers to build applications on top of them.
Application Layer: reading, interpreting and sending back data are what will enable us to develop real applications. If we all immediately think of healthcare and the potential of Neurotech to cure diseases, the scope of application actually goes much further. Whether it’s to make us interact faster with computers by directly reading our thoughts/brainwaves, or applications to make us learn faster or just to play video games, the number of use cases is huge (see our mindmap below for more examples).
But where are we now?
Before I can share my public API key to a developper so she can upload her application to my brain we have a loooonnnng way to go. There are countless obstacles to overcome.
At the hardware level it’s still unclear what’s the best way to extract data at scale (we’re currently very limited by the amount of data we can extract in real time from our brain) and how we’ll be able to do it without having to drill holes in everyone’s skull (BCIs need to be as little intrusive as possible).
Also we still don’t understand how the brain works exactly, so it’s not even sure that we can ever build a general purpose OS to interact with it. In terms of “applications” we already have some real examples (ex: identify simple yes/no answers given by locked-in patients, command prosthetic limbs) which are fantastic but have a lot of room for improvement.
Why is this trend accelerating now?
Thanks to cheaper and better sensors it’s getting easier to “extract” data from the brain and to “inject” data too.
Thanks to machine learning it’s getting easier to understand brain signals ie : this signal means the brain is seeing a dog or the letter A, this signal shows that the brain is in deep sleep or this signal shows this person is about to fall in love etc.
More money is going to neurotech projects because it’s the future of human/computer interfaces. And the money is coming from successful entrepreneurs (Elon Musk with Neurolink or Bryan Johnson with Kernel), big companies like Facebook which has 60 researchers working on “an interface that would allow people to type at 100 words a minute straight from their brain” (see The Economist article shared below for more info) and from VCs who increasingly invest in such projects.
Our must-reads this month:
The Economist published a very complete report on the state-of-the-art of Brain-Computer Interfaces.
Your brain is a semi-open book: closing your eyes and your mouth is not enough to keep your secrets.
Let’s face it, in 2018 we are still just scraping the surface of how the human brain works. The best place to start, if you have a full day in front of you, is to read Tim Urban’s post.
In terms of products and companies, CBinsight and Crunchbase published two excellent reports about VC investments in Neurotech which are on the rise ($600M was invested in the recent months). If look at the list of companies working on Neurotech, you will notice that the majority is based on ElectroEncephalogram.
Electroencephalogram is not a new technique. It has been around for close to a century (the first EEG of a human brain was recorded in 1924), and it consists in “reading” the brain electric activity, a.k.a the brainwaves, thanks to electrodes placed along the scalp.
I am not going to rewrite wikipedia but here is a simple definition I found:
“Brainwaves, also known as neural oscillations, are the rhythmic electrical activation of large groups of neurons. These oscillations are labelled according to the frequency with which they occur, and different frequencies are loosely correlated with certain kinds of cognitive function.” Source
To keep it simple you have electricity going through your neurons when they communicate information and seen from the skull this creates an electric wave with different frequencies and each frequency will indicate a certain level of focus or relaxation.
Keep in mind that EEG is a non invasive technique that catches the signal from outside the brain. This is where software becomes useful to first clean the signal and then interpret it (here is a good Quora post which explains how ML is used for that purpose).
What is interesting is that this technology was mainly used and developed by researchers and doctors in labs and hospitals, but now more and more entrepreneurs are working on brainwave products targeted directly at the end-user for very specific use cases that go beyond healthcare.
Basically we’re going from this type of headsets:
To this type of headsets:
What is noticeable is that these startups focus on very specific use cases like losing weight, improving the way you study or monitoring your sleep quality and many more. They can’t compete with multi-purpose / high end headsets in terms of performance and precision, so they concentrate on “narrow applications”.
Clearly we’re only at the beginning of this trend, a lot of readers will probably tell us that these startups are “over-promising” and that the results delivered by these headsets are probably limited at the moment (yes, some are probably “bordeline” scam).
We won’t argue with that. We are not experts and have only tried some of them over a short period of time. However what’s interesting is the dynamic of the trend and to think of the bigger picture (after all it’s our job :-)):
- We expect an increasing number of “brainwave — EEG based” tech startups to emerge in the years to come.
- They will address an increasing number of use cases not necessarily linked to healthcare. Ex: a headset that you use to monitor and improve your performances while playing video games, or that you will use with dating apps to visualize how your brain reacts to the pictures of a potential date and see if both users are compatible).
- The software and hardware components keep improving so it’s not crazy to think that these dedicated headsets will slowly disappear and will be integrated directly in your glasses or in the headphones you use to listen to music (and will make recommendations based on how your brain react to the music you listen). Think of Fitbit trackers which started as dedicated fitness wristbands and are now integrated in watches, rings or earphones.
As a conclusion it’s worth insisting that EEG is only one of many methods that let one “read” the brain activity. Several other approaches exist such as fMRI or electrodes implanted directly within the brain. We’ll try to cover some of them in the coming months.
Our must-reads this month:
- The brain is a predictive machine. Here is a fascinating article that explains how the brain is an anticipation machine and adapts with experience.
- Computer synapse : we talked a lot about the brain in this month post, but computer chips are starting to mimic brain synapses.
- A good piece in the Guardian on a journalist testing different cognitive enhancement tools and drugs.
- MindID: Person Identification from Brain Waves through Attention-based
Recurrent Neural Network.
Are we living a Psychedelic Renaissance?
This month let’s talk about psychedelic drugs. I think we are supposed to put a legal mambo about the fact that you shouldn’t take drug, that we are not endorsing any illegal activities and, of course, opinions are our own and not our employers. OK? Now lets get high.
Psychedelic drugs (psilocybin is the active molecule within the so called magic mushroom, MDMA, a.k.a ecstasy, and LSD) are making a come back as a tool to fight mental illnesses such as depression and PTSD, but also to enhance cognitive capacity and global well being. Numerous clinical trials involving LSD and MDMA are being conducted and those drugs are slowly moving form the “drugs are bad and destroying society” to the “maybe we should not put everything in the same basket, there might be some opportunities”. In several tech circles (see Mark Suster’s recent tweet) we read more and more about the psychedelic drugs being used not only for recreational purpose, but also for medical test, biohacking and better work capacities (sadly Hippies lost and they are probably not really happy that people now use drugs to enhance their productivity… but this is another debate). the main usecase we see outside the recreative world are :
- Fight depression: Well I guess there are already a handful of drugs used to fight depression (according to OECD .5% to 1% of the population of developed countries are taking antidepressants) but researchers are finding that Ketamine, MDMA and Psilocybin could have strong effect on depression.
- PTSD: It’s the first area where MDMA was used beyond recreational purpose, and it seems to make good progress. Two studies are currently going through FDA final trials.
- Cognitive enhancement: one of the goals of taking psychedelic drugs is to help people think from a different perspective. This is why microdosing is on the rise (at least according to google trends, and the SubReddit on microdosing). Microdosing consists of taking small amounts of LSD or Psilocybin on a regular basis in order to be in a constant zone of sharp thinking (those terms are highly subjective in my opinion and I will let you try or read about it to make your own opinion).
What do those drugs do the brain and how do they make its users think differently ? If on a pure chemistry level drugs usually boost some neurotransmitters such as serotonin or block some receptors, it seems that they also change the neural networks interaction. This article does a good job at explaining the effect of psilocybin on the brain.
When researchers compared the brain of people who had received four injections of psilocybin with those of people who were given a placebo, they found that the drug changed how information was carried across the brain (subjects received 2 milligrams of psilocybin; the dose and concentration of the chemical in actual mushrooms — which are eaten, not injected — varies.) Typically, brain activity follows specific neural networks. But in the people given psilocybin injections, cross-brain activity seemed more erratic, as if it was freed from its normal framework. Source.
Why does it matter ?
First of all LSD and psilocybin are among the least dangerous drugs in terms of dependence potential and harm caused (we are all different and surely all of us have some relatives who have really bad experience and dependency with drugs, but in all the article and paper I read on the subject those 2 drugs are always at the bottom of both harmfulness and dependency level).
I believe we are going through a psychedelic renaissance, and after having been banned from society and public conversation for a while, psychedelic drugs will be part of our future.
We think that the brain is the next platform and a pure hardware/software approach won’t be enough to unlock its full potential. Our brain is a chemistry machine and drugs seem to be quite efficient at changing its behaviour. If we can find harmless ways to make people happier, more confident and open to new ideas (and not unease or afraid when facing different ideas) I do think it will benefit our society.
It clearly goes beyond tech, but from a VC perspective it will impact a lot of industries. And if you think this will never happen, think about this : would you have believed, ten years ago, that weed will be a legal drug in the USA under a president named Donald Trump? So why not a legal LSD under president Nakamoto in ten years?
Our must reads this month:
- [Article] How SIlicon Valley rediscovered LSD (FT).
- [Data points]: In the last 10 years publication in medical papers mentioning LSD have been 4x and 3x for psilocybin - source.
- [Product] CompassWay is a startup working on the use of psilocybin to treat depression (Peter Thiel is an investor).
- [Product] Nectome: “Committed to the goal of archiving your mind. We’re building the next generation of tools to preserve the connectome. Keep your memories intact for the future.” side note : you have to die to use it…
- [Organisation]: MAPS is a non profit pushing for more studies and trials with psychedelic drugs. They are a great resource for research and they have done a great job at moving things forward in this field. Cool fact : the Pineapple Fund, run by an anonymous Bitcoin millionaire and financing with 80m$ non profit organisations has given $4M to Maps (biggest contribution so far from this fund).
The Braintech Developer Stack
The past couple of years has seen the rise of user friendly and affordable hardware and software that enable developers to create their Braintech app. It’s only the beginning, but a real Braintech stack is emerging.
Let’s illustrate this trend by looking at two interesting products.
Hardware: Emotiv is an EEG headset that you can buy for 800$ and which can be used for professional applications. What’s interesting is that they also offer a SDK, as well as several APIs, that enable developers to interact with the brain in several ways: from accessing raw data coming from the headset to API “shortcuts” that abstract functions such as mental commands or emotion recognition (available “out of the box”). All of that through a subscription model (yes a good old SaaS model for Braintech).
Software: the Virtual Brain is an open source software developed by neuroscientists that simulates the human brain on your computer. This project is an attempt at emulating how the brain works to let anyone run their own simulation by playing with a variety of parameters and visualize the results.
Why does it matter ?
Similar to what is happening in the web developer tools space we expect more specialized products to emerge (e.g: an API focused on “mind control” only, specialised in gaming, in emotion monitoring etc.) and also more platforms.
We spoke about EEG in this newsletter and a previous one, but other technologies to interact with the brain (MRI, fMRI, brain electrodes) will also get more accessible in the years to come.
We're still at the beginning in terms of what's really possible and most of these tools have huge limitations (here's a great post on the current limitations of EEG headsets).
Our must reads this month:
[Data Point] Researchers have made a decisive step towards being able to simulate brain-scale networks on future supercomputers of the exascale class:
- [Article] "The image below show what a human saw and then three different ways an AI interpreted fMRI scans from a person viewing that image." Source.