Why the Future of Neurotech Is Consumer Devices

Wearables for your brain

  • Neurotechnology is moving away from sci-fi brain chips and toward usable consumer devices. 
  • Consumer devices that enhance how your brain learns or help you stay focused are entering the market soon. 
  • Experts say brain-enhancing consumer devices are an exciting future, but we must tread lightly.
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When we think of neurotech, many of us conjure up images of Black Mirror-esque technology, but experts say the future of neurotech lies in simple consumer devices that will help us in our everyday lives. 

Companies are producing consumer-focused devices based on neuroscience to help our brains optimize to their fullest. While the market for these consumer devices is not as popular as wearable smartwatches, the next decade or so could see everyday consumers using these devices. 

“The next revolution will really be the brain, and we want to make that useful for everyday people, not just people who are able to afford it,” Iain McIntyre, the CEO and co-founder of humm, told Lifewire in a phone interview. 

Enhancing Your Brain 

One of the consumer devices in the works is humm: a patch that promises to help you learn quickly and more efficiently by sending signals to your brain. It launches in beta this year and will be available to the general public in early 2022. 

“What the humm patch does is put a little tiny bit of electricity in the prefrontal cortex on somebody's forehead, and that causes the brain to replicate that electrical signal,” McIntyre said. “So it's a tiny mental activity, but the brain decides to do that as well.”

McIntyre said that by wearing the patch for just 15 minutes, you’d get about an hour and a half of brain boost. That time would be ideal for activities like learning a new skill or performing a hard cognitive task, according to the company.

Eventually, McIntrye hopes that putting on a humm patch will be as second nature as wearing your Apple Watch. 

Person wearing a humm patch on their forehead, reading a book

humm

Aside from humm, other consumer neurotech devices in the works, such as Neurable’s brain-computer interfaced headphones to help you focus, are set to launch next year. Neurable’s technology uses EEG (electroencephalography) sensors to non-invasively monitor your brain's electrical activity, then combines that data with cutting-edge artificial intelligence algorithms to better understand how the brain handles things like focus and distractions. 

The Future of Neurotech Consumer Devices 

Devices such as headphones or a patch are much more accessible to people than the neuroscience Elon Musk talks about, like implanting a chip inside your brain. Uma Karmarkar, an assistant professor at UC San Diego's Rady School of Management and School for Global Policy and Strategy, said there is a lot of consumer interest when it comes to these devices. 

“We, as consumers, really like life hacks. We are so used to wearables that we would be more comfortable with these [types of] devices,” she told Lifewire over the phone. 

Karmarkar said one thing to keep in mind as we move into an era of neurotech consumer devices is the ethics of these products. She said while companies’ claims may be valid, the scientific community as a whole does not know the long-term effects these devices have on our brains.

Stylized brain with highlighted electrical activity

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“I think communication to consumers is a really interesting ethical question here because one [question] is whether the efficacy that they established is true,” she said. “And a second one is, even if the claims that they're making are true, how do they work in the long term? Are there risks that might moderate that?”

According to an essay published in the journal Science, regulatory oversight of direct-to-consumer neurotechnologies is insufficient. The reason for this is because neurotech devices “can avoid being classified as drugs by refraining from making explicit claims about treating or diagnosing disease and limiting their claims to wellness,” the essay’s co-author, Peter Reiner, explained to the University of British Columbia

Karmarkar notes that we have to tread lightly as these high-tech brain-enhancing devices become more widely available to the general public in the coming years. 

“I think it's important to raise the questions,” she said. “Now, there may be really good answers to these questions, but I do think it's important to raise the questions because it's easy to get excited [about neurotech devices].”

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