Brain-Machine Interface Isn’t Sci-Fi Anymore

Steven Levy

Thomas Reardon talks with his staff. Credit: Alex Welsh – Wired

Thomas Reardon puts a terrycloth stretch band with microchips and electrodes woven into the fabric—a steampunk version of jewelry—on each of his forearms. “This demo is a mind fuck,” says Reardon, who prefers to be called by his surname only. He sits down at a computer keyboard, fires up his monitor, and begins typing. After a few lines of text, he pushes the keyboard away, exposing the white surface of a conference table in the midtown Manhattan headquarters of his startup. He resumes typing. Only this time he is typing on…nothing. Just the flat tabletop. Yet the result is the same: The words he taps out appear on the monitor.

That’s cool, but what makes it more than a magic trick is how it’s happening. The text on the screen is being generated not by his fingertips, but rather by the signals his brain is sending to his fingers. The armband is intercepting those signals, interpreting them correctly, and relaying the output to the computer, just as a keyboard would have. Whether or not Reardon’s digits actually drum the table is irrelevant—whether he has a handis irrelevant—it’s a loop of his brain to machine. What’s more, Reardon and his colleagues have found that the machine can pick up more subtle signals—like the twitches of a finger—rather than mimicking actual typing.

You could be blasting a hundred words a minute on your smart phone with your hands in your pockets. In fact, just before Reardon did his mind-fuck demo, I watched his cofounder, Patrick Kaifosh, play a game of Asteroids on his iPhone. He had one of those weird armbands sitting between his wrist and his elbows. On the screen you could see Asteroids as played by a decent gamer, with the tiny spaceship deftly avoiding big rocks and spinning around to blast them into little pixels. But the motions Kaifosh was making to control the game were barely perceptible: little palpitations of his fingers as his palm lay flat against the tabletop. It seemed like he was playing the game only with mind control. And he kind of was.

2017 has been a coming-out year for the Brain-Machine Interface (BMI), a technology that attempts to channel the mysterious contents of the two-and-a-half-pound glop inside our skulls to the machines that are increasingly central to our existence. The idea has been popped out of science fiction and into venture capital circles faster than the speed of a signal moving through a neuron. Facebook, Elon Musk, and other richly funded contenders, such as former Braintree founder Bryan Johnson, have talked seriously about silicon implants that would not only merge us with our computers, but also supercharge our intelligence. But CTRL-Labs, which comes with both tech bona fides and an all-star neuroscience advisory board, bypasses the incredibly complicated tangle of connections inside the cranium and dispenses with the necessity of breaking the skin or the skull to insert a chip—the Big Ask of BMI. Instead, the company is concentrating on the rich set of signals controlling movement that travel through the spinal column, which is the nervous system’s low-hanging fruit.

Reardon and his colleagues at CTRL-Labs are using these signals as a powerful API between all of our machines and the brain itself. By next year, they want to slim down the clunky armband prototype into a sleeker, watch strap-style so that a slew of early adopters can dispense with their keyboards and the tiny buttons on their smartphones’ screens. The technology also has the potential to vastly improve the virtual reality experience, which currently alienates new users by asking them to hit buttons on controllers that they can’t see. There might be no better way to move around and manipulate an alternate world than with a system controlled by the brain.

Reardon, CTRL-Labs’ 47-year-old CEO, believes that the immediate practicality of his company’s version of BMI puts it a step ahead of his sci-fi-flavored competitors. “When I see these announcements about brain-scanning techniques and the obsession with the disembodied-head-in-a-jar approach to neuroscience, I just feel like they are missing the point of how all new scientific technologies get commercialized, which is relentless pragmatism,” he says. “We are looking for enriched lives, more control over things over things around us, [and] more control over that stupid little device in your pocket—which is basically a read-only device right now, with horrible means of output.”

Reardon’s goals are ambitious. “I would like our devices, whether they are vended by us or by partners, to be on a million people within three or four years,” he says. But a better phone interface is only the beginning. Ultimately, CTRL-Labs hopes to pave the way for a future in which humans can seamlessly manipulate broad swaths of their environment using tools that are currently uninvented. Where the robust signals from the arm—the secret mouthpiece of the mind—become our prime means of negotiating with an electronic sphere.

This initiative comes at a prescient moment for CTRL-Labs, where the company finds itself perfectly positioned to innovate. The person leading this effort is a talented coder with a strategic bent, who has led big corporate initiatives—and left it all for a while to become a neuroscientist. Reardon understands that everything in his background has randomly culminated in a humongous opportunity for someone with precisely his skills. And he’s determined not to let this shot slip by.

Reardon grew up in New Hampshire as one of 18 children in a working class family. He broke from the pack at age 11, learning to code at a local center funded by the local tech giant, Digital Equipment Corporation. “They called us ‘gweeps,’ the littlest hackers,” he says. He took a few courses at MIT, and at 15, he enrolled at the University of New Hampshire. He was miserable—a combination of being a peach-fuzz outsider and having no money. He dropped out within a year. “I was coming up on 16 and was, like, I need a job,” he says. He wound up at Chapel Hill, North Carolina, at first working in the radiology lab at Duke, helping to get the university’s computer system working smoothly with the internet. He soon started his own networking company, creating utilities for the then-mighty Novell networking software. Eventually Reardon sold the company, meeting venture capitalist Ann Winblad in the process, and she hooked him up with Microsoft.

Reardon’s first job there was leading a small team to clone Novell’s key software so it could be integrated into Windows. Still a teenager, he wasn’t used to managing, and some people reporting to him called him Doogie Howser. Yet he stood out as exceptional. “You’re exposed to lots of type of smart people at Microsoft, but Reardon would kind of rock you,” says Brad Silverberg, then head of Windows and now a VC (invested in CTRL-Labs). In 1993, Reardon’s life changed when he saw the original web browser. He created the project that became Internet Explorer, which, because of the urgency of the competition, was rushed into Windows 95 in time for launch. For a time, it was the world’s most popular browser.

A few years later, Reardon left the company, frustrated by the bureaucracy and worn down from testifying in the anti-trust case involving the browser he helped engineer. Reardon and some of his browser team compatriots began a startup focused on wireless internet. “Our timing was wrong, but we absolutely had the right idea,” he says. And then, Reardon made an unexpected pivot: He left the industry and enrolled as an undergraduate at Columbia University. To major in classics. The inspiration came from a freewheeling 2005 conversation with the celebrated physicist Freeman Dyson, who mentioned his voluminous reading in Latin and Greek. “Arguably the greatest living physicist is telling me don’t do science—go read Tacitus,” says Reardon. “So I did.” At age 30.

In 2008, Reardon did get his degree in classics—magna cum laude—but before he graduated he began taking courses in neuroscience and fell in love with the lab work. “It reminded me of coding, of getting your hands dirty and trying something and seeing what worked and then debugging it,” he says. He decided to pursue it seriously, to build a resume for grad school. Even though he still was well-off from his software exploits, he wanted to compete for a scholarship—he got one from Duke—and do basic lab work. He transferred to Columbia, working under renowned neuroscientist Thomas Jessell (who is now a CTRL-Labs advisor, along with other luminaries like Stanford’s Krishna Shenoy).

According to its website, the Jessell Lab “studies systems and circuits that regulate movement,” which it calls “the root of all behavior.” This reflects Columbia’s orientation in a neuroscience divide between those concentrating on what goes on purely inside the brain and those who study the brain’s actual output. Though a lot of glamour is associated with those who try to demystify the mind through its matter, those in the latter camp quietly believe that the stuff the brain makes us do is really all the brain is for. Neuroscientist Daniel Wolpert once famously summarized this view: “We have a brain for one reason and one reason only, and that’s to produce adaptable and complex movements. There is no other reason to have a brain…Movement is the only way you have of affecting the world around you.”

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