China Has a Controversial Plan for Brain-Computer Interfaces

At a tech forum in Beijing last week, a Chinese company unveiled a “homegrown” brain-computer interface that allowed a monkey to seemingly control a robotic arm just by thinking about it.

In a video shown at the event, a monkey with its hands restrained uses the interface to move a robotic arm and grasp a strawberry. The system, developed by NeuCyber NeuroTech and the Chinese Institute for Brain Research, involves soft electrode filaments implanted in the brain, according to state-run news media outlet Xinhua.

Researchers in the US have tested similar systems in paralyzed people to allow them to control robotic arms, but the demonstration underscores China’s progress in developing its own brain-computer interface technology and vying with the West.

Brain-computer interfaces, or BCIs, collect and analyze brain signals, often to allow direct control of an external device, such as a robotic arm, keyboard, or smartphone. In the US, a cadre of startups, including Elon Musk’s Neuralink, are aiming to commercialize the technology.

William Hannas, lead analyst at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET), says China is quickly catching up with the US in terms of its BCI technology. “They’re strongly motivated,” he says of the Asian superpower. “They’re doing state-of-the-art work, or at least as advanced as anybody else in the world.”

He says China has typically lagged behind the US in invasive BCIs—that is, those that are implanted in the brain or on its surface—choosing instead to focus on noninvasive technology that’s worn on the head. But it’s quickly catching up on implantable interfaces, which are being explored for medical applications.

More concerning, though, is China’s interest in noninvasive BCIs for the general population. Hannas coauthored a report released in March that examines Chinese research on BCIs for nonmedical purposes.

“China is not the least bit shy about this,” he says, referring to ethical guidelines released by the Communist Party in February 2024 that include cognitive enhancement of healthy people as a goal of Chinese BCI research. A translation of the guidelines by CSET says, “Nonmedical purposes such as attention modulation, sleep regulation, memory regulation, and exoskeletons for augmentative BCI technologies should be explored and developed to a certain extent, provided there is strict regulation and clear benefit.”

The translated Chinese guidelines go on to say that BCI technology should avoid replacing or weakening human decisionmaking capabilities “before it is proven to surpass human levels and gains societal consensus, and avoid research that significantly interferes with or blurs human autonomy and self-awareness.”

These nonmedical applications refer to wearable BCIs that rely on electrodes placed on the scalp, also known as electroencephalography or EEG devices. Electrical signals from the scalp are much harder to interpret than those inside the brain, however, and there’s a huge effort in China to use machine learning techniques to improve analysis of brain signals, according to the CSET report.

A handful of US companies are also developing wearable BCIs that arguably fall under the category of cognitive enhancement. For instance, Emotiv of San Francisco and Neurable in Boston are starting to sell EEG headsets intended to improve attention and focus. The US Department of Defense has also funded research on wearable interfaces that could ultimately enable control of cyber-defense systems or drones by military personnel.

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