These start-ups who want to tweak the brain: OpnWatr

by bold-lichterman

After having set the decor and treated in detail the start-up Neuralink of Elon Musk in the first part of this series of articles, let’s move on to another startup that has great ambitions in the ability to read and write in the brain with OpnWatr (“Open Water”). Its method is more elegant than that of Neuralink because it is not intrusive.

She nevertheless asks the same two questions: on the one hand on its ability to keep its promises given what we know about the functioning of the brain, and, on the other hand, on the many associated risks if its process was operating. From a moral and ethical point of view, these companies have a double talk that must be analyzed closely: their technique makes it possible to improve the everyday life of people suffering from various pathologies, in particular neurodegenerative, but in the “augmented man” mode. », They carry significant side effects, particularly from a safety point of view. It is characteristic of many new technologies that appeared in the 19th and 20th centuries: civil aviation vs. military aviation, the civilian atom vs. the military atom, etc. Is this a reason to avoid them? History shows that almost nothing can stop them and that you have to live with them. In the present case of brain hacks, the main obstacle will happily and for a long time remain technical feasibility. The brain is more difficult to understand and manipulate than nuclear fusion or fission! Does that reassure you? Not really, because you should never say never.


Read and write in a living brain with OpnWatr

Unlike Neuralink, OpnWatr aims both to read in the brain and to write in it. The company was founded in 2016, as Neuralink, by Mary lou jepsen, an entrepreneur with an impressive extended CV, having worked through Google, Facebook, Oculus Rift, and the “One Laptop per Child” project. She also founded Pixel Qi, a fabless start-up based in Taiwan, the origin of an LCD screen operating in two modes: one with backlight and in color, and the other, without backlight, and in black and white as with an LCD screen e-reader. These screens appeared in the 2010s but the company closed in 2015. Mary Lou Jepsen has a doctorate in photonics and various masters in electrical engineering and holography. It is the depositary of more than a hundred patents.

The OpnWatr process uses square LCD screens that are approximately one inch diagonal, at very high resolution, and placed in a bandage or cap. They illuminate the brain or another part of the body with light rays in the near infrared. The rays enter deep into the body and are then picked up by single-pixel probes. This would allow analysis at a fine level of granularity, of less than a cubic millimeter or even a cubic micron, therefore at the scale of a neuron, depending on the depth of the analysis. As a good part of the cortex is close to the skull, this would in theory allow to obtain a good analytical resolution for a good part of the functioning of the brain. The deep part of the brain mainly contains white matter which is made up of axons that connect the neurons of the brain as well as the limbic brain. It is less interesting than the cortex.


The screens resemble those that can be found in virtual reality headsets. The sensors capture the light emitted by these screens and reflected by the examined organ at the level of intensity and phase. History does not say whether the operation is repeated at high frequency by illuminating the screen point by point, and then reconstructing the holographic / volumetric view of the analyzed volume. The system is supposed to identify the state of neurons with great precision. It generates a kind of digital brain hologram. Mary Lou Jepsen is familiar with her field having worked as a student on video holograms at MIT and participated in the development of a video hologram creation system in 1989.


As the blood absorbs infrared rays and its transparency depends on the oxygen content, this system makes it possible to identify tumors, brain activity linked to oxygen consumption, as in functional MRI. This light process at the material level replaces for reading the call for functional MRI which requires expensive installations with heavy and bulky magnets (example below at GE).


The process detects changes in blood color and refractive index to identify active neurons with temporal precision on the order of a millisecond. The objective is initially to democratize the functional analysis of the brain, even of other parts of the body. The capture can be done in real time over long periods, making it possible to analyze the functioning of the brain and identify the active areas according to its activity and what we are thinking.


By accurately analyzing the activity of the visual cortex with this kind of tool, we can identify what an individual sees. This principle is documented in the article Decoding the Semantic Content of Natural Movies from Human Brain Activity published in October 2016 and which describes the principle of decoding what the brain sees as an image via the analysis of its visual cortex. This allows you to literally read minds: what words do you think of, what song do you have in your head, how do you perceive the information you receive. It is the basis of telepathy.


The system can theoretically also be used to focus light on parts of the brain and to “write” on them, via targeted activation of neurons, essentially thermal. In this use case, it replaces the invasive nanoelectrodes from Neuralink. The two projects are therefore quite frontally competing, and OpnWatr has the advantage of reading and writing in the brain while Neuralink’s electrodes are content to write. OpnWatr is non-invasive while Neuralink is. On paper, therefore, OpnWatr is superior. If not both Neuralink and OpnWatr have traditional health applications for treating certain brain conditions. It remains to be verified from a practical point of view.

OpnWatr announces that its helmet would detect and even treat cancers, cardiovascular pathologies, internal bleeding, mental illnesses, neurodegenerative diseases. What is more, the technique should make it possible to read and write memory, to create memories and emotions. By writing directly in the visual cortex and why not in the auditory, we wouldn’t be far from setting up a Total Recall-style scenario! Sympathetic… but we are very far from it, even if the process worked to activate individual neurons. It is not clear how each brain “registers” concepts, ideas and memories.

On the roadmap side, OpnWatr announces that it will deliver a limited quantity of prototypes to partners by 2018. As from an electronic point of view, the process seems more accessible than that of Neuralink, the company could very well be able to keep its promise. In any case, it will not take long to verify it. Here again, we are a long way from Theranos syndrome, even if we are entitled to be skeptical about the ability to modify the state of neurons in the brain. If the company is satisfied to succeed only on the reading part, instead of functional MRI, this will already be a huge technological advance opening the way to many uses, especially therapeutic. If the system does not change the state of neurons but just treat tumors, that will also be very useful. But Mary Lou Jaspen like many players in this market is looking to put a responsible face and start the discussion on how to prevent these technologies from becoming dangerous. We always wonder if this is a facade speech to complete its future Corporate Social Responsibility Report (USA) or if it is a really serious step.

From a practical point of view, such a system will eventually make it possible to do without a smartphone or even a virtual reality headset. The helmet will then be replaced by a cap … probably not very discreet which will tend to make the appearance of their users identical. A key anecdotal point: the personalization of these hats will become an important marketing attribute and will be at the origin of the creation of a new kind of after-market!

To find out more, you can watch Mary Lou Jepsen’s intervention at TEDx San Francisco in October 2016 as well as at the Milken Global Conference from 30 minutes (but the whole video is fascinating) in May 2017 as well as the transcript of a long interview with Kara Swisher in Recode.

Innovation is almost always incremental. Thus, Mary-Lou Jepsen studied extensively the work and life of the French mathematician Joseph Fourier. Fourier transforms are leading mathematical objects for analyzing signals, in particular in the context of interferometry which makes it possible to reconstruct the shape of objects according to the shape of the electromagnetic waves that they scatter, passing through refraction or optical scattering. These are mathematical processes used in a completely different field: that of radio telescopes, like that of Acirebo in Puerto Rico (below). These generally only pick up a quantity by pointing an antenna or several antennas in a given direction in space. By moving the sensor or the antenna, one can scan different directions in the celestial vault. The reconstruction of an image in the spectrum of the explored radio waves involves processing the recovered signals which integrates inverse Fourier transforms. This is also the case with OpnWatr.


The technology developed by OpnWatr is also an improvement in the general principle of near infrared spectroscopy applied to the examination of the brain. It is well documented in A quantitative comparison of NIRS and fMRI across multiple cognitive tasks dating from 2011 (illustration below). It is also already used by the Dutch company Artinis, and allows in particular the detection of the level of oxygenation of the tissues with less hair-raising applications than the announcements of OpnWatr, as in sports medicine.

We find the same technique in a project of Facebook managed by Régina Dugan. This aims to create a cap similar to that of OpnWatr, to analyze signals from the brain and allow a user to enter text by thought, all at the speed of 100 words per minute. So faster than with a keyboard or voice control. The difference in the OpnWatr process? It lies above all in the emission of infrared with high-resolution screens, which improves the spatial resolution of the system compared to the use of simple infrared diodes used at Facebook.


On closer inspection, Facebook’s project is more plausible than OpnWatr’s from a practical point of view. Reading simple thoughts like a number or a letter is quite plausible. While interpreting the details of our thoughts without going through language and a fortiori, writing in the brain without going through language seems much more difficult to achieve. One can however imagine intermediate applications, for example, the fact of taming your pets with such devices. History of making a cat less independent and closer to the dog from a behavioral point of view. Yes, I’m delusional. Like many of these projects!


Olivier Ezratty is a consultant and author. He advises companies on the development of their innovation strategies, and in particular in the sector of connected objects and artificial intelligence. Very active in the start-up ecosystem that he supports as a consultant, advisor, speaker and author, he is appreciated for the in-depth articles on his blog Free opinions in very diverse fields. He has published the “Startups Guide” as well as the “CES Las Vegas Report” every year since 2006. Olivier is an expert for FrenchWeb which resumes from time to time the publication of articles on his blog.

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