Brain-computer interface technology rapidly evolves in China, expected to form a new quality productive force
BCI innovation rapidly evolving, to form a new quality productive force
Published: Mar 14, 2024 05:40 PM
A staff member demonstrates a brain-controlled smart wheelchair at the World Robot Expo in Beijing on August 16, 2023. Photo: VCG

A staff member demonstrates a "brain-controlled smart wheelchair" at the World Robot Expo in Beijing on August 16, 2023. Photo: VCG

Giving prosthetics real feeling and controllable with mind, or treating epilepsy, Alzheimer's, depression, Parkinson's and other neurological disorders, can be realized through the brain-computer interface (BCI) technology, evolving with deep cross-fertilization of life sciences and information technology.

BCI refers to the establishment of communication and control channels for direct interaction between human brain and external devices. That is to say, through BCI, the fantasy of human beings controlling external objects with their minds may become a reality.

A research team at Tsinghua University recently published the details of cases in which two paralyzed patients regained a degree of movement through wireless, minimally invasive BCIs. At the end of January, Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced that his brain-chip startup Neuralink implanted brain chip in a sick man.

All these seem to indicate that the concepts that once existed in science fictions are moving from academic exploration to practical use. As the future industry is on the way, how is China's progress in this cutting-edge technology? How will BCI change people's lives?

The concept of the BCI has been around for more than 50 years, and research in China has been underway for more than 20 years. 

Evolving technology 

During a meeting held by China's Brain-Computer Interface Industrial Alliance on Monday, a number of experts and industry insiders discussed the country's BCI technology results as well as development prospects.

According to the way of neural signal acquisition, BCI can be divided into two categories: invasive and non-invasive. The former implant the electrodes directly into the patient's cerebral cortex through surgery, and the latter can be done without surgery by directly attaching the electrodes to the scalp.

"The country strongly supports the future technologies including meta-universe, humanoid robots, BCI and quantum computing. In terms of the noninvasive BCI, I am confident to say that China has achieved self-resilience, ranging from the concept to technology including electrode chip and algorithm," Gao Xiaorong, a professor of Tsinghua University engaging in the BCI for 20 years, told the Global Times on the sidelines of the meeting.

China and the US run different technology routes in BCI, but the final application scenarios are the same, Gao said, adding that China and some European countries mostly research non-invasive BCI while the US focuses on invasive BCI.

"Our team has always been guided by the principle of altruistic sharing, so we are completely open to international cooperation for mutual benefit," Gao said.

Lü Baoliang, a professor from Shanghai Jiao Tong University, told the Global Times that China now plays a leading role in some researches on non-invasive BCI for emotional treatment such as depression. 

According to an article published by an Italian university in 2022, two subsets of the emotional electroencephalogram dataset "SEED," made public by the university in 2015, are being used more than 50 percent worldwide; while the DEAP dataset, published by the EU in 2012, is used 27 percent of the time worldwide, Lü noted.

"At present, the research and development in BCI has continued to explore a variety of fields, including bionics, medical diagnostics and intervention, consumer electronics and virtual reality," Wu Xia, a professor from Beijing Normal University, told the Global Times.

Wu noted that non-invasive BCI technology is well suited for industrial safety monitoring and is expected to improve industrial productivity. "In addition, the technology has the potential to improve machine efficiency through brain-controlled machinery, and to improve human efficiency through skills training such as instrument operation and equipment driving."

New growth driver

During the meeting, Liu Bochao, an official from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), said that the BCI is an important track to cultivate new engine for economic development, create a new driver for economic growth and develop new quality productive forces in China. 

The MIIT has laid out a batch of future industries represented by the BCI, in order to seize the opportunity of the development of new-generation information technology.

"Some basic researches of BCI industry like basic electrodes, core storage and high-grade algorithms have to be carried out by the so-called 'national team,' including national scientific research institutions, national medical centers, and large state-owned technology enterprises," Wang Changming, an associate researcher at the Beijing-based Xuanwu Hospital, told the Global Times during the conference.

However, relying on the "national team" does not mean that private enterprises only play a small role. It is clinical to define clear functional requirements for BCI products as well as standards, Wang said, expecting that there will be a lot of BCI products to emerge in the second half of this year.

The 2024 Government Work Report delivered by the State Council, the cabinet, noted that China will strive to modernize its industrial system and develop new quality productive forces at a faster pace. The report listed a series of tasks, including industrial and supply chain improvement and upgrade, and the cultivation of emerging industries and future-oriented industries such as hydrogen power, new materials, bio-manufacturing, commercial spaceflight, quantum computing and life sciences.

China accounted for 35 percent of global patent applications for non-implantable acquisition and sensing technology, the Xinhua News Agency reported. By 2040, the comprehensive market size of China's BCI industry is expected to exceed 120 billion yuan ($16.68 billion), according to a report by QbitAI, an industry services platform focusing on artificial intelligence and the BCI technology.

To further boost the healthy development of the BCI industry, Chinese experts noted that the country ought to improve relevant laws and regulations and provide more support to the private enterprises, which will help promote the coordinated development of the industry.