China sets its sights on human brain-computer interface standards

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China aims to be among the first countries to begin developing standards for the future of brain-computer interfaces with the establishment of a new technical committee by its Ministry of Industry and Information Technology specifically for this purpose.

The ministry’s Brain-Computer Interface Standardization Technical Committee is currently fielding opinions and ideas on various issues associated with the technology and standards that the country already has set for its development, according to a press release published online by the Ministry.

These include developing and revising basic standards not only for the technology’s technical aspects, but also to hammer out issues around ethics and safety — which become increasingly more critical as technology that pushes boundaries for human-machine interaction advance.

The newly formed standards committee is currently soliciting comments regarding topics such as the “typical paradigms” of brain-computer interfaces; input and output interfaces such as brain information collection and preprocessing; and brain information encoding and decoding, data communication, and data visualization.

It’s also formulating and revising technical standards and test specifications for brain-computer interfaces in various fields, including medical, health, education, industry, and consumer electronics. It also will consider ethics and safety aspects such as the safety of emerging interface systems, as well as clinical applications of them.

Organizing standards leadership

Overall, the standards effort will attempt to create some kind of organization around stakeholders involved in China’s domestic brain-computer interface industry, including those in academia, research, and the tech industry itself.

The ultimate goals are “to focus on the hot spots of the industry and the needs of industry development, accelerate the research on the roadmap for the standardization of brain-computer interfaces, clarify the key directions and research and development priorities of brain-computer interface standardization, and coordinate and promote the formulation of brain-computer interface standards,” according to the release.

People have until July 30 to share their comments with the Science and Technology Department of the Ministry during the public announcement period.

The move supports China’s previously revealed three-year plan to establish itself as a global leader in computing standards, particularly for emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence. China is vying to strengthen its position in its ongoing technology race with the US and other nations taking the lead in tech that’s pushing the boundaries of how humans interact with machines.

Ethics to play a key role

While many technology standards efforts focus on interoperability, stewards for technologies such as AI and brain-computer interfaces — which push the boundaries of human-machine interaction — have a more pressing set of concerns, noted Brad Shimmin, chief analyst, AI & Data Analytics at Omdia. China’s new committee and groups such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) in the US that seek to clarify these emerging standards will need to put ethical and safety considerations at the forefront of their agendas, he said.

“These organizations will be tasked with the difficult task of providing ethical guidance, providing a sustainable foundation upon which innovators can build solutions, as well as placing constraints on research and experimentation,” Shimmin said. “Such efforts can help to accelerate innovation while also ensuring that funded research conforms to the current socio-political expectations of the host country.”

Even with standards bodies such as the IEEE, the United States has historically encouraged aggressive research and experimentation with new technologies — up to a point, Shimmin noted. In the US, for example, Elon Musk’s brain-computer interface company Neuralink is currently in human trials with its surgically implanted brain chip, though it hit a snag this week when the second patient who was to receive the chip bowed out for medical reasons. As these trials evolve, however, organizations like the National Institutes of Health will continue to collaborate with lawmakers so they can step in to limit potentially dangerous research, he said.

Still, countries that can take a lead on the standardization of methods, interface mechanics, or materials used in creating human brain-computer interfaces, as well as the consideration of ethical issues, can “fuel national pride” that in turn drives investment in innovation and an influence on the global stage, Shimmin noted.

“Any country able to set the tone for highly impactful areas of innovation … can to a great degree shape the future of influence in that market, drawing in talented researchers and investors,” he said.

Still, no matter what standards bodies decide about human brain-computer interfaces, the pace of the technology will likely move very slowly — at least in the US, given that any meaningful use or market application will have to be approved by medical and healthcare regulators, experts said. This may give China’s standards efforts an edge if they are not limited by such a rigorous approval structure. 

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