German-Dutch startup Zander Laboratories has secured €30mn in funding from Germany’s Cyber Agency to transform the interaction between humans and machines. Notably, this is the largest single-financed research project in the EU to date.
The startup beat four other contenders who competed for the government’s “Secure Neural Human-Machine Interaction” proposal call in October.
Zander Laboratories took home the price thanks to its “Neuroadaptivity for Autonomous Systems” (NAFAS) project, which aims to tackle a persistent difficulty for machines: understanding human emotions, cognitive decision-making, and mental states.
Towards an intuitive interaction between human and machine
NAFAS employs a passive Brain-Computer Interface (pBCI), which reads and interprets human brain activity by tracking brain signals. As part of the project, the team will be using these signals to decode mental states and identify categories that are transferable to artificial systems.
“We aspire to systems that can intuitively adapt to the individual user based on their brain activity and to AI applications that learn directly from the human brain,” said Dr Thorsten Zander, Managing Director of the startup and Lichtenberg Professor for Neuroadaptive Human-Technology Interaction at Brandenburg University of Technology (BTU).
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The ultimate goal is to enable machines to capture and interpret brain data in real time, which would help them adapt to the cognitive and affective states of each individual user, fostering a personalised experience. This would also allow the transfer of the user’s knowledge, goals, and values into the machine, making an intuitive interaction between the two possible.
“This approach in the field of Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCI) clearly highlights the differences in approach between the USA and Europe,” noted Dr Zander. “While the USA prefers invasive methods, primarily focusing on medical applications, we opt for non-invasive technologies with the aim of serving users without restrictions.” For example, think of Neuralink, Elon Musks’s California-based startup, that’s developing implantable brain-computer interfaces.
In the coming four years, the team at Zander Laboratories will develop a neurotechnological prototype. The prototype is intended to extract data from the brain, enabling users not only to exchange information with the machine through their thoughts, but also to guide it to perform tasks or even acquire new skills.
If successful, the project will yield four demonstrators that will bring the principle into context and apply it to specific use cases in internal and external security.
“If what Prof. Dr. Thorsten Zander has proposed with his NAFAS project succeeds, we can compete with the USA in Germany and, particularly in passive Brain-Computer Interfaces, be technologically ahead,” said Dr Christian Hummert, Research Director at the Cyber Agency.
“This characterizes disruptive research for Germany’s digital sovereignty, a venture that we, as the Cyber Agency, finance and support with the largest research funding to date.”
Zander Laboratories was founded in 2005 and has offices in Cottbus and Delft. It’s also collaborating with some of Europe’s most remarkable research and academic institutions: the Fraunhofer Institutes for Photonic Microsystems (IPMS) and for Digital Media Technology (IDMT), the Dutch TNO, Brain Products GmbH, Eaglescience Software B.V., the Brandenburg Technical University Cottbus-Senftenberg, the University of Vienna, and the Julius Maximilian University of Würzburg.