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Medical Devices

Conor Russomanno: Open Source & the final frontier of our minds

 “This is the future of our minds and we should take it seriously,” says Conor Russomanno Co-Founder and CEO of OpenBCI, a for-profit, Open Source piece of hardware used by researchers in the BCI (Brain Computer Interface) space. “We should not let one company turn into the Google of BCI… it should be owned by everyone.”

I’m meeting Russomanno in the beautiful, dome-ceilinged café at London’s V&A Museum. This was the first museum restaurant in the world, created as a showcase for Victorian manufacturing, craftsmanship and design. And as the zenith of innovation in its day, it seems a fitting location to meet one of the people at the vanguard of the fledgling new brain tech industry.

“There are two really tough challenges to what we do,” explains Russomanno. “The first is actually designing the stuff. And the second is building a company that we feel morally okay with leading. The future of neurotechnology is a fragile industry in terms of the way the technologies can be misapplied, and the data recorded can be misused and sold.”

He slices his smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel in two: “Do you want half?” Russomanno comes across as very genuine and extremely passionate about BCI. He has just attended the BrainTech 2015 event in Israel and is returning to New York via London and the first UK ‘Hack the Brain’ hackathon. These brain hackathons are still a very new idea and he vows he is going to go to “all of them” until there are too many to attend.

The Open Source principles of exploration and equal partnerships appear to run through the heart of Russomanno’s philosophy. “We’re 100% dependent on our community,” he says. These are people that care - “the fuel that keeps us going”. Part of the reason for this is that “BCI is an all or nothing space,” people are either ridiculously enthusiastic or simply aren’t interested at all.

This is should come as little surprise. On the one hand, the brain is the most complicated computer around. The scientists that are trying to replicate it in the brain-inspired computing arena - like IBM with its True North chip are facing an incredible challenges. On the other hand, the brain is the last unexplored region. We have analytical data on our bodies - and even our furniture - yet our brains remain largely uncharted. This makes the whole arena extremely confusing and potentially dangerous… which in turn, leads to a non-competitive spirit of enquiry amongst enthusiasts.

Russomanno describes how at BrainTech in Israel he was “hanging out” with Ariel Garten, creator of stylish consumer EEG headband, Muse, Stephen Dunne from Starlab Neuroscience, Daniel Goodwin from The Brainwriter BCI Project  and Yannick Roy from Neurogadget (whose excellent write up of the event can be found here). "we're all working in the same industry... but it was not a competitive atmosphere at all."

This is because everyone is experiencing the same issues. The question we are facing at the moment is: “How do we reach the plateau of EEG?” says Russomanno. “We are a long way from reaching its peak.” He believes the space is also still young enough that “someone could blow it for everyone”. 

This could be by a researcher who fails to take due care, creates a massive electric chair and electrocutes themselves. Russomanno stresses that this is why OpenBCI takes all the plugs out of its kit and makes sure nobody is hooked up to the mains. The other potentially negative – albeit not so macabre scenario - is that some commercial solution could “over promise”, unveil a high-profile piece of kit which doesn’t work and “taints the space”.

There are probably “enough players now” for this to be past this danger zone though, he adds, and the industry is continuing to grow very quickly. In fact, this has seen a peak in hardware recently, which means it could be time for an explosion in software.

“There will always people who don’t care about improving things,” says Russomanno and slick, consumer devices like Muse or the Emotiv Insight [when it is shipped] will be ideal for them. For other people, the limitations of this sort of kit will quickly become apparent and they will want to do more. This is where OpenBCI comes into its own. It is a complex piece of apparatus and it took Russomanno two hours to explain how it worked to a serious audience at the UK hackathon.

“The majority who use OpenBCI are PHD students and labs,” he explains, and while 1200 units have been shipped so far the total reach is likely to be far greater. The top three markets are US, UK and France and although the price of $450 could be a little too steep for more “DIY users” he hopes to release a cheaper version later this year.

The concept of an Open Source for-profit company is “hard to get across” he says. We have been sustainable through Kickstarter in January 2014 but the company works to tight margins. “It is not about buying a board,” he clarifies “you’re donating to OpenBCI and getting a board, so we don’t have to bring in an investor that gets to tell us what to do”.

This seems to be an important part of the whole movement, which is very thoughtful and academic in tone and presents an unusual blend of arts and science. Russomanno even teaches regular courses at his alma mater, the Parsons New School for Design. And is especially enthusiastic about the course he is currently teaching - the first he created himself, titled: “Designing Consciousness”. This covers philosophical thought from Aristotle to sci-fi and is grounded in seminar discussion and serious debate.

As an industry “we need to make sure we don’t go to market with cheesy buzz phrases,” he says. The mind is the last frontier of mankind… it is imperative we don’t do anything to undermine its serious, life-changing potential.  

 

IDG Connect has produced a series of articles around brain technology over the last few months. Here are some of the highlights:

Overview: The Rise of ‘Telepathic Tech’ in 2015
Survey: Please share your views on ‘Telepathic Tech’
Event: The UK’s first ‘Hack the Brain’

Industry interviews:

Kim Du, Emotive: The big data of healthy brains
Ariel Garten, Muse: A stylish headset challenger
Tre Azam, Myndplay: How brain tech can make us mentally strong

Other interviews:

Medical opinion: Collette Johnson from Plextek Consulting
Business opinion: Dr Gordon of Salford Business School

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