A concept image of brain-computer interface Photo: VCG

Chinese research teams are striving to build self-developed chips for brain-computer interface (BCI), a critical bioscience sector that could collect and analyze human brains’ electronic signals, paving way for a breakthrough in this next-generation technology in industry, aerospace and medicine, whose markets are valued at trillions of dollars.

The sector, which has been put on the US export control list, is at the forefront of a white-hot technology war between the world’s two largest economies. While the US, represented by technology company Neuralink founded by Tesla CEO Elon Musk, has a clear edge in invasive BCI technology thanks to an early start, China also excels in non-invasive technology as it is a forerunner in decoding and brain-computer system applications.

A neuro-engineering team at Tianjin University is working on the research and development of the second-generation “BrainTalker” chip, which uses less power and offers higher system-on-chip integration. 

Wearing a brain electrode cap that is covered with sensitive electrodes, with the chip inserted, a person can type by using his mind. Characters appear onscreen by interpreting his brain signals without the need for physical typing.  

A BCI product, Xhand, is showcased at China (Shanghai) International Technology Fair on April 15, 2021. Photo: VCG

A BCI product, Xhand, is showcased at China (Shanghai) International Technology Fair on April 15, 2021. Photo: VCG

Xu Minpeng, assistant director of the Tianjin Brain Science Center who leads the project, told the Global Times that using the chip, the research team is able to capture “good-quality” brain intentions from electroencephalogram signals that could satisfy application demands. 

“We’re upgrading the technology, but it has some way to go before it can be commercialized,” Xu said. The first generation of “BrainTalker” was released in 2019.

The research team from Tianjin University is one example of how China is accelerating its efforts to break “bottlenecks” in BCI technology, in particular in front-end collecting chips and high-performance processors, where core technologies are heavily dependent on imports from the US and European countries.

Tech advance

“We are also facing the problem of technological blockades by the US. Some BCI products need to be smaller and more efficient, and this can’t be accomplished without the support of imported chips and materials,” Zhang Jianmin, director and professor of the Department of Neurosurgery at the Second Affiliated Hospital Zhejiang University School of Medicine (SAHZU) and one of the leaders of the BCI clinical research team at Zhejiang University, told the Global Times last Thursday.

“We have to be more innovative to clear away these technological setbacks,” Zhang noted.

The team led by Zhang has just made an important breakthrough on the application of BCI, after the country’s first closed-loop neurostimulator proved effective for epilepsy control in clinical applications.

The closed-loop neurostimulator is an advanced technology based on the BCI technique to identify seizures in the early stages, and it is able to deliver a therapeutic electrical stimulus in response to the onset of a seizure.

According to Zhang, the world’s first closed-loop neurostimulator was approved by US Food and Drug Administration and put on the market as early as 2015. However, due to a US monopoly and blockade of technology, intractable epilepsy patients in China or elsewhere in Asia cannot get access to the treatment, which makes it important for China to be self-sufficient in this future technology.

In 2020, the US Industry and Security Bureau published a list of “emerging technologies” that are subjected to export control. BCI, along with other 13 technologies, was on the list. 

But industry observers pointed out that China is quickly closing the technological gap with the US, and it has even outperformed the US in certain fields.

For example, a closed-loop neurostimulator developed by Zhang’s team is smaller and weighs less than similar foreign models. It also greatly improves the service life of the product through the use of wireless recharging technology,

According to Zhang, the team will carry out phase III clinical trials and it is estimated that a large-scale application could be available within three years after being approved by Chinese regulators. BCI-based neurostimulators to treat dementia and mania are also under development.

“China also has an incomparable edge in its massive application scenarios,” Zhang said.

Gap with the US

In February, Musk revealed in an interview that Neuralink, a start-up he founded, had put a computer chip into a monkey’s skull, wiring the monkey to play video games with its mind.

“China’s gaps with foreign competitors in the area of invasive BCI are undeniable quite large. Technological barriers persist in many aspects including high-sensitivity sensors, high-fidelity neuron signal collection, and high-precision micro environmental controls for plantations,” Xu said. 

But Xu stressed that certain technological results developed by Chinese teams in non-invasive BCI technology are world-class. 

For example, the Tianjin University research team in 2020 had created a high-speed BCI system with the world’s largest command set, using an innovative mixed coding approach that enables the system to process up to 108 computer commands. Such a function is about three to four times that of current competitive brain-computer systems.

In April, Fudan University revealed its first self-made remote BCI chip for animals, which it claimed is only half of the weight of similar foreign products. 

In addition to healthcare applications, Xu pointed out that the team is also working with China’s astronaut training center on the issue of joint aerospace exploration by BCI technology and intelligent robots.

“The chip is able to further reduce the loads of astronauts, making it easier for them to move around in outer space,” Xu said.