The latest frontier of neurotech is brain-machine collaboration
In the rapidly evolving world of brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), Taryn Southern doesn’t just observe the future – she’s helping to script it. As a documentary filmmaker turned Chief Storytelling Officer for a leading implantable neurotechnology company, Taryn has played a unique role in driving public awareness and interest around these pioneering devices. In 2019, she co-directed a lauded documentary film on the future of brain-computer interfaces (BCIs); some of her other efforts include launching the world’s first BCI museum in Washington, DC and producing content showcasing the extraordinary abilities of real-world BCI patients. In a recent conversation, Taryn gives us a glimpse into her journey and the technological advancements that are redefining the human experience.
First, Chief Storytelling Officer – that’s not a role you hear often. What does that entail?
I came into the field of neurotech not as a scientist, but as a storyteller.
In 2016, I was blown away by advancements made in the neurotech field – and how little awareness the general public had. So I began producing a documentary that followed three patients with implantable brain-computer interfaces (BCIs). At the time, there was one technology company that kept popping up in conversations with patients and neuroscientists – Blackrock Neurotech. In 2021, I joined the team.
Impactful stories are told through a variety of mediums – and my work as Chief Storytelling Officer is no different. I oversee branding, design, video, special projects and communications, so I spend a lot of time thinking about how to use these different storytelling vehicles to educate and inspire the public about the possibilities of neuroscience. From re-designing the brand aesthetic to opening a BCI museum, my goal is to simplify and humanize the technology.
In July 2022, you gave a talk at Fortune Brainstorm about the world’s “first superhumans.” Can you tell us more?
Absolutely! There are several dozen people around the world who have been implanted with a BCI. These early pioneers (we call them BCI Pioneers) have participated in groundbreaking studies, accomplishing incredible feats of science, such as typing emails, operating robotic arms in 3D space, playing video games, creating art, “sensing” touch, and more – all with just their thoughts. I call these research participants superhumans, because they are charting new frontiers in science and redefining the scope of what makes us human.
How do brain-computer interfaces work?
The first BCI patient was implanted in 2005, so this research has been taking place for the past two decades. Each implanted microelectrode array picks up the activity of single neurons in the brain. AI then reads and converts this activity into digital commands, enabling the patient to have direct communication with external devices like computers, wheelchairs, and robotic arms. So if a patient wants to move a cursor on the screen, for instance, he may imagine his hand moving a mouse with his hand and clicking with his finger. It’s incredibly intuitive.
Since 2004, these arrays have been implanted in dozens of people with paralysis and other neurodegenerative disorders like ALS – enabling them to move, feel and communicate again.
One of the patients you have worked with calls himself a “cyborg” – can you tell us about him?
Nathan Copeland was paralyzed from the chest down after a car accident in 2004. Years later, he had the opportunity to sign up for an experimental BCI research study at University of Pittsburgh, where he would have four micro-arrays implanted in his brain.
Nathan has pioneered a number of “firsts” – he is the first human to have electrode arrays implanted in the sensory cortex, which enables him to operate robotic arms and sense touch via robotic arm. He is the first person to fist bump a U.S. President (President Obama) with his BCI-controlled robotic arm. Nathan’s first BCI artwork was completed on June 19th, 2017, using Microsoft Paint, and in 2020, Nathan became the first person to sell his brain-created art as an NFT. Given all the ways Nathan has demonstrated the future possibilities of BCIs, he has often referred to himself as a “cyborg.”
In August of 2022, Nathan broke the world record for longest chronic BCI implant.
There’s another patient you’ve been working with who also likes to make art with his device. Can you tell us more about him?
In 2017, James Johnson was in a paramotor accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down. He went on to sign up for a BCI study at Caltech, where he has done a number of incredible things with his BCI such as create art, type emails and play games.
We’ve filmed James working in Photoshop with his BCI, so he can see how that works. Soon we’ll be able to share details about another project James has been working on this year – but I think the public will be absolutely floored. The work he is doing is remarkable.
Some people are scared about the idea of having a brain implant. Would you ever sign up for one?
A lot of public conversation around brain implants has been driven by sensationalist headlines and Black Mirror episodes. The reality, however, is far less provocative – or plausible. The field is still a very long way from giving people the ability to download their consciousness or learn at hyperspeed.
The focus for most companies in the BCI space is ameliorating neurological diseases and disorders – and that means prioritizing patient safety and efficacy above all else. So would I get a BCI? If I had a condition that could benefit from one, absolutely. I’ve seen first-hand the tremendous impact these devices have on patients. Their creativity, their motivation, their sense of purpose.
All that said, we’ll see many more exciting leaps forward in the field over the next 10-15 years. So come back to me then.