brain-machine interfaces

Brain-Machine Interface Startup Neurable May Incentivize Data-Sharing, But Doesn't Plan to Share or Sell It

This week, Neurable announced its first product, 10 years in the making: headphones that analyze the brain’s EEG signals
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9 min read

When Ramses Alcaide was eight years old, a family tragedy changed the course of his future.

His uncle, an engineer and inventor, lost both his legs in a trucking accident. Alcaide watched him struggle with the unnatural feel of prosthetics and resolved to spend his career creating tech for disabled and non-disabled people alike: “a world without limitations, where everyone can participate equally,” he told Emerging Tech Brew.

That led to years of studying electrical engineering, prosthetics control systems, neuroscience, and brain-machine interfaces. As part of his PhD work, Alcaide built a signal processing pipeline to help enable people with cerebral palsy and ALS to communicate, and that research inspired the foundation of his company, Neurable: “Touchscreens used to be assistive technologies, but now they're just how everyone interacts with the world,” he says. “What if we could do that everyday brain-computer interface?”

For Alcaide, the past 10 years—plus thousands of research participants, and thousands of hours of recorded data—have been dedicated to that question.

The brain-machine interface sector is projected to reach a market value of nearly $3.5 billion by 2027, and it’s been making waves in recent years. That’s thanks in part to Elon Musk and his own brain-machine interface company, Neuralink, which is focused on “designing the first neural implant that will let you control a computer or mobile device anywhere you go” via surgically implanted microchips. But Neurable’s approach is considerably different: consumer products, no surgery necessary. And on Tuesday, Neurable announced its very first product: Enten, a set of headphones outfitted with EEG sensors, which track a user’s focus and productivity levels.

The headphones won’t be available until spring 2022, so there’s time to ask questions: Though EEG signals are indeed measurable, the scientific world has raised some concerns about accuracy of interpretation—but over time, as more EEG data is accumulated, machine learning should be able to flag patterns and trends.

We chatted with Alcaide on Tuesday about the device a decade in the making—and the potential risks and downstream effects of the technology.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Our readers are familiar with Neuralink, and with brain-machine interfaces as a concept. What makes Neurable different from Neuralink? How do you see your company charting its own path?

When you think of Neuralink, that's a product that the average consumer won't get, unless, for example, you have epilepsy, you're a quadriplegic, et cetera. It requires surgery, which is incredibly dangerous. Right now, and for the foreseeable future, the risks just don't outweigh the benefits.

So if a Neuralink device is similar to a prosthetic, then our technology is similar to a Fitbit for the brain. It allows you to collect information and understand yourself and provides value as to how you should structure your day and maximize your time. All the benefits are provided to you without any type of surgical implant. That's why we don't necessarily see ourselves as competitors with Neuralink.

Tell us exactly what it’s like to use the headphones for a day. What kind of pings would a user get? What would they experience, step by step?

What's really great about these headphones is they have these soft electrodes. They're basically cloth that’s embedded into the headphones. So it’s just like putting on your everyday wearable headphones, and then they’ll be picking up your brain activity. As you start entering into a mode of focus, that’s when the headphones will actually turn on “do not disturb” mode.

On top of that is noise cancellation, so you maintain that focus for longer. If you start dropping out of focus, we can create a small little tone to get you back into it quicker. If you're fatiguing, we can let you know that, so that you can go take a break.

And if you get a notification, we have hands-free voice free control so you can quickly interact with your headphones without taking your hands off the keyboard or your mouse, so that you maintain your focus and just push away that notification using your headphones instead of any type of physical contact.

Part of this—the awareness of your level of focus throughout the day—reminds me in a small way of the Screen Time app on an iPhone, which can either be a hindrance or a motivator. How do you hope this product can shift habits across the board, even when someone is not actively using the headphones?

That's a fantastic question. Step number one is obviously being aware of your distractors and how turning on “do not disturb” and reducing noise from your life helps make you more focused. So it's that awareness actually helps train habits.

Step number two: Going through it is a form of training as well. The more focused you are, the more you know what it feels like to be in focus. So that just starts to create a habit where you start doing it more and more.

But I think that the most valuable thing is that these are just a pair of headphones, also. So you're going to just use them because you want to listen to music, because you want to isolate yourself from noise around you. So, while we can provide you constant value and over time, you start to develop these habits by just wearing them.

I’ve spent time reporting on companies that attempt to track empathy levels using AI—e.g., tone analysis and other tools—for companies to use on employees, especially in customer service. Obviously that’s a big concern with any brain-machine interface, especially one that measures your levels of focus and productivity. How are you addressing that with Neurable? Do you ever see yourself selling data, releasing any data, or entering into partnerships—even with anonymized data—about which hours of the day employees are most productive, etc.?

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We don't have any plans to do any of that. We don't plan to make money from that perspective. We really believe as a company that people own their data. And the way that we work with companies or with schools, for example, to really allow this product to be used at a greater scale is that individuals would get access to their own data, and they get to decide how they want to incorporate that—not that there's going to be one big overseer that gets to decide everything. That's definitely not what we want.

And psychological studies have shown that, too. It works better if you empower people to create their own change in their life, instead of just having somebody yell at them. So that’s our perspective. We're not planning to sell any data whatsoever.

And you've mentioned that the way that you plan to make money is chiefly through the sale of the device itself, correct?

Yes, through the device itself. We're also planning eventually to have a subscription service, where basically we'll be continuously updating this technology over time, software-wise, to allow for more cognitive features and also more forms of hands-free control for the user.

What's really cool, though, is we are potentially going to offer the subscription service for free if people share their data. So for example, we may want to figure out how people might feel fatigued, or how they might want to switch a music track. By contributing data to us, you would get that subscription for free. So we're really trying to get the community involved in helping us build a better product. And because we can do all the updates via software, it really allows for a product that continues growing in value.

So that data would only be used to make the device better, or analyze current struggles to brainstorm new features that could be added in the next iteration?

Exactly. How we can use feedback to make a better product, essentially.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Having an everyday device that collects data for multiple hours—instead of just only when you go into a scientific study to get a brain-computer interface done for you—is really going to open up a lot of scientific and health questions.

There are lots of forms of hands-free control that we're planning to integrate as we move forward, and we plan to support other form factors as well in the future. I can't really get into all of that right now, but this is really the beginning of what we want to create for the future of brain-computer interfaces and human computer interaction.

This is a question for down the line, but do you worry that the advent of this tech will mean other companies could start to adopt it, gift it to employees, and use it for shadier purposes? In the same way, for instance, that for some work-issued laptops, companies track the amount of time spent on each app and webpage?

What we really want to do is bring forward the first consumer tech product that brings people value every day, that creates a “wow” factor of trust in neurotech, like, “Wow, I see that it’s actually helping me.”

By doing that, we have our own social responsibility to set the standards. What data protection is going to be, what data sharing is going to be. What you said isn’t necessarily farfetched, but as the ones who are leading in this area, it's our responsibility to set those standards. So if anybody tries to do something different, they'll look at it and be like, “Wait a minute—that seems wrong. That's not the standard.” So that's really kind of where we're positioning ourselves.

What about the changes you’ve seen in your own life? What, specifically, have you seen in terms of your own behavioral change, using yourself (or other people at Neurable) as case studies during development?

I personally have ADHD, and it’s always been a difficult challenge, especially because in the past, my primary work at Neurable was more technical, and now it's more about being in the public, an evangelist, the CEO, leading—which is a completely different set of skills than coding and writing journal articles.

So how I manage my medication has been really valuable, as has using the headphones—understanding how they affect my focus, where I should use them, how I should structure my day. And on top of that, being able to leverage the technology to know when my mind is wandering and be able to step back to things at a faster rate than I normally would. So these are all benefits that I've gained from it.

The device is meant for everyone, but it’s especially helpful for those who suffer from issues when it comes to distractions—especially in this crazy world, where people are doomscrolling and everything happens in a 24-hour news cycle. It’s good to have something to help you maintain that focus and really feel more accomplished throughout the day.

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Tech Brew keeps business leaders up-to-date on the latest innovations, automation advances, policy shifts, and more, so they can make informed decisions about tech.