Last night Dr. Ulrich G. Hoffmann, a professor from the University Medical Center Freiburg Clinic for Neurosurgery in Germany, visited the University of Rhode Island to give a lecture on brain-machine interfacing technology.

He aimed to answer the question: “Is fusing brain and machine a desirable goal? And if so, are we there yet?”

Hoffman is the 20th scholar in URI’s Distinguished Visiting International Scholar program. After obtaining his Ph.D. in 1996, Hoffmann served as a postdoc at the Ã…bo Akademi in Turku, Finland, and later at Caltech as a Feodor-Lynen Fellow.

In 2003, Hoffmann became the head of the Biosignal Processing and Neuroengineering research group at the University of Lübeck in Germany. Since then, he has been involved in highly interdisciplinary research spanning biomedicine, biomedical electronics, and biotechnology and moved to Freiburg in 2012.

To begin the lecture, Hoffman talked about the way the public’s perception of the end result of the research he does, from movies like “The Matrix” and “Star Wars,” and that he wants to help people learn “the truth behind it.”

Hoffmann said he was led to the area of brain-machine interfacing after seeing Luke Skywalker’s robotic arm in Star Wars. He said that moment made him decide that he “wanted to build a robotic hand . . . [and] that’s simple . . . that’s just mechanics.” But, as he found out, the mechanics are not all there is to it. The problem lies in “interfacing,” or creating a connection to transfer data from the brain to the mechanical device, according to Hoffman.

The non-invasive techniques for brain-computer interfacing are often not as efficient as invasive techniques used for brain-machine interfacing. They can get “bloody and messy,” Hoffman said. Non-invasive brain-computer interfacing techniques can transfer data from the brain at a rate of around only 80 bits per minute, while “bloody and messy” brain-machine interfacing ones can reach up to a kilobyte per minute.

Hoffmann spent much of the lecture explaining some of the many complex ways to create brain-computer and brain-machine interfaces, such as EEG-BCI.

“It’s complicated,” Hoffmann said, and cautioned that these technologies are at least 10 years off from real application. “If the technology is here to do it [brain-machine interfacing], then why do we still talk about it? “Because it doesn’t work [yet].”

To explain why that is, he turned to an idea called the translational gap, where in he said “we are stuck” between non-human and human research because brain implants often fail within three months.

However, with advances in research, Hoffmann said “there is hope.” He added that there are already brain machine interfaces out there to help people, such as cochlear implants, “although not as flashy or shiny as the ones we see in Hollywood,” he said.  

To conclude his speech, Hoffmann said that when “everyone who needs this [technology] will be able to go into the next hospital and get help . . . that’s when my work will be done.”