Brain Startup Synchron Says AI Will Be Instrumental for Devices

Tom Oxley, chief executive officer of Synchron Inc., during the Bloomberg Technology Summit in San Francisco, California, US, on Thursday, May 9, 2024. Bloomberg Tech is a future-focused gathering that aims to spark conversations around cutting-edge technologies and the future applications for business. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg)

(Bloomberg) -- Brain-computer startup Synchron Inc. is tapping OpenAI’s latest artificial intelligence models to help paralyzed patients communicate using its implant — a still-early combination of hardware and AI that Synchron’s chief executive officer said could eventually be transformational for patients. 

New York-based Synchron, a competitor to Elon Musk’s brain startup Neuralink Corp., implants its device into the brain via a vein in the neck. Once active, the implant can communicate a patient’s desired actions to a tablet computer. The device, called the Stentrode, can also help patients with tasks like writing emails or answering texts.

The Stentrode is now integrated with GPT-4o, a model OpenAI released in May, which makes drafting written responses easier for its patients. For example, the technology behind the product can analyze a conversation taking place in the room, gauge the weather and check a calendar in order to suggest a potential response to an email. 

Auto-responses aren’t exactly the stuff of science fiction, but Synchron Chief Executive Officer Tom Oxley sees the integration as a meaningful move toward futuristic goals around enhanced brainpower for even healthy people. “This is a baby step on that pathway,” Oxley said. When artificial intelligence meets brain devices, “the combination is extremely powerful,” he said, and could ultimately let humans express themselves in new ways.

For now, the advances made by Synchron and other companies including Neuralink can help paralyzed people handle tasks such as turning a TV off and on, more seamlessly interacting with a computer and other electronic actions that able-bodied people take for granted. For users of the Stentrode, adding the GPT component makes it significantly easier to write messages, Oxley said.

The link between AI and medical hardware conjures both utopian and dystoptian scenarios. Oxley stressed that there will be limits with its AI integration. “We are not sharing any brain data with OpenAI,” he said. “What we are sharing is the inputs that come in from the user’s environment,” such as verbal conversations in the room. The system could create more privacy for patients, the CEO said, because they can interact directly with a device rather than asking a caregiver for help.

Mark, a 64-year-old retired buyer for a national wholesaler who asked that his last name not be used, has received one of Synchron’s implants. Mark was diagnosed in 2021 with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and has lost the use of his arms and hands. 

Mark’s Stentrode doesn’t read thoughts, but it can detect his intended movements — movements he mostly can’t make because of his ALS. Different attempted motions correspond to different features on his tablet, an Apple iPad. Tapping his right foot opens a drop-down menu, for instance. And thinking about clenching his right hand is the equivalent of clicking on a highlighted item.

When he gets text or emails, the technology allows him to choose among responses generated by Synchron’s GPT-based tool that appear on the tablet. For example, “might have to check my schedule” or “that time’s fine” might pop up as suggested replies to his doctor’s request for an appointment on Tuesday at 3 p.m.

This type of technology could particularly help patients who have lost the ability to speak, as Mark expects will happen to him as part of the progression of ALS.

“One of the big things about this disease is independence,” he said. “I see where, down the road, all this technology is going to make it easier for me to continue to communicate, to watch TV, to do all those things without assistance.”

Synchron is still in its early feasibility study for the device, with just a handful of patients testing it. Based on data from this stage, Synchron will next apply to the US Food and Drug Administration for a pivotal trial, and eventually aim to launch Stentrode in the marketplace. That step is likely several years away.

While the current version uses OpenAI technology, Synchron anticipates one day working with several models from various AI companies, Oxley said.

--With assistance from Shirin Ghaffary.

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.

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