Brain-Computer Interfaces: Medical Miracles and Innovation Policy

Publication: China Brief Volume: 24 Issue: 1

At Haihe labs, a patient controls a robotic sixth finger with imagination alone. (Source: Tencent QQ)

Decades of strategic investment in science at the central and local levels have manifested in significant advances in Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCIs, 脑机接口) (Xinhua, November 15, 2023). This nascent technology is an increasingly important part of China’s ambitions to become a science and technology superpower. A short feature on CCTV highlights BCIs’ emergence as a key technology in the eyes of the state, among seven cutting-edge technologies identified by the 14th five-year plan and its Long-range Objectives Through the Year 2035. In the words of a Chinese para-athlete interviewed at the end of the segment, “this is a manifestation of Chinese-style modernization (中国式现代化的表现)” (CCTV, January 3).

BCIs are a subfield of neuroscience and engineering research that rely on massive amounts of data to interpret biological states. They allow people to execute physical movements or use computers through thought alone and are primarily developed for medical applications. However, BCIs are highly contextual and calibrated devices that can be adjusted for specific situations and users. This raises concerns about human-machine integration in military applications and data privacy in entertainment applications. Despite their rapid rise in recent years, China’s progress in BCIs has been underreported.

China’s Focus on BCI Research

Recently, various BCIs have been featured in innovation fairs and events within innovation clusters across China. For instance, a recent Shenzhen Hi-Tech innovation fair included a device that allowed seamless two-way reading and writing (“双向读写”) between brain and device. Such events also function as a form of science diplomacy, drawing international researchers to Chinese research hubs (S&T Daily, November 16, 2023; S&T Daily, November 15, 2023). Similarly, at the unveiling of Huangpu’s “Future City/Greater Bay Area Metaverse Innovation Demonstration Center (未来之城•大湾区元宇宙创新示范中心),” BCIs were listed explicitly, alongside highly discussed artificial general intelligence, big data, and algorithms, as integrative digital technologies of the future (S&T Daily, November 8, 2023). The devices were also present at the 2023 Global Panda Global Innovation and Entrepreneurship Competition at Chengdu Hi-Tech Industrial Development Zone (S&T Daily, November 7, 2023).

BCIs are engineering systems often developed for certain applications. Unless BCI systems are innovative in their design, they are applied rather than basic research. In contrast, brain-inspired computing (neuromorphic computing, 类脑计算) is a form of basic research that has also been named alongside BCI as a key technology. Neuromorphic computing challenges the theoretical foundations of computer science by mimicking brain processes to maximize information processing. Innovations in neuromorphic computing would extend past isolated devices to accelerate AI and machine learning-enabled tasks, providing an energy-efficient alternative to AI training. Shi Luping (施路平), a leader in the field at Tsinghua University, likens his research to “exploring a dark, unmapped ‘no man’s land’ (在漆黑的、没有地图的 ‘无人区’ 探路).” He goes on to say that “it is precisely this kind of no man’s land exploration that is likely to bring breakthroughs, so that key areas of science and technology bring great changes” (Tsinghua News, September 26, 2021). “Great changes (巨大变革)” is a common formulation in Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rhetoric over the past few years that promotes an image of China’s ascendance in the world (Qiushi, November 16, 2022).

Similarly, media coverage frequently eulogizes domestic advances in BCI technology, tying it to narratives of national rejuvenation. In 2023, a 2016 use of a BCI in outer space was lauded as a world-wide first accomplished by China, seven years after the fact (Tencent QQ, December 28). Recently, an article on an innovation forum in Pujiang, Zhejiang Province, praises China for surpassing the United States in terms of patents and the volume of scientific publications, before discussing Belt and Road projects in Indonesia and Africa as other data points for emerging national strength (Xinhua News, September 14). And in a separate piece on BCI technology, researcher Li Xiaojian (李骁健) warns of the risks of foreign forays into the field, citing Elon Musk’s Neuralink trials as “quite radical and risky (比较激进,有潜在风险).” The piece goes on suggest that responsible medical development can instead be found in domestic research (Nanfang Daily, November 10).

 State-Backed BCI Research: Haihe Laboratories and China Brain Project

Haihe Laboratories

Haihe Laboratories (海河实验室), based in Tianjin, unveiled the Haihe Laboratory of Brain-Computer Interaction and Human-Computer Integration in March last year (Tianjin Government, March 29, 2023). Its cutting-edge BCI research was framed in overtly political terms in a recent profile. One scientist asserts that they should “achieve indigenization through self-reliance in science and technology (我们应该通过科技自立自强来实现国产化)” (Tencent QQ, December 28, 2023), citing directly principles of self-reliance and self-improvement prescribed by the 14th five-year plan. Another suggests that since export controls by the United States or other countries could limit their research, they focus on their capacity to independently develeop products (Tencent QQ, December 28, 2023).

Haihe lab scientists have developed the Shengong (神工) series of BCI products which, like other BCI devices, advance ideals of human-computer integration through applications-based interpretations of biological data. “Divine Armor (神工-神甲),” allows stroke patients to walk with a more normal gait by normalizing their walking patterns against a database of normal gait patterns and communicating that information through a robotic exoskeleton. Another device, the “Brain Whisperer (神工-脑语者),” is an implantable chip designed to improve brain signal acquisition accuracy. Other devices include a thought-controlled sixth robotic finger and a diagnostic tool for depression treatment (Tencent QQ, December 28; Tianjin Industrial and Information Technology Bureau, July 25, 2023). These devices realize the potential of data interpretation methods to further scientists’ abilities to produce products that read minds. They also serve as a case study for China’s efforts to invest in critical technologies to achieve Human-Computer Fused Intelligence (脑-机融合智能), fill a gap in domestic knowledge production to seize leadership on the international stage, and promote the cultivation of CCP priorities including self-reliance and cultivating indigenous talent (Tianjin Media, June 25, 2022; Tencent QQ, December 28, 2023).

China Brain Project

The China Brain Project (also known as the Brain Science and Brain-Inspired Intelligence project) is the most comprehensive state-backed initiative that funds BCI research. The project, launched alongside the 13th five-year plan in 2015, is framed as following a “one body and two wings (一体两翼)” structure, whereby investigating cognitive functions and research technology platforms contributes to both treatments of brain disorders and the creation of brain-machine intelligence technologies (Medical Review, June 30, 2022). It stipulates collaboration between neuroscientists and AI researchers, emphasizing a reflexive nature between the two domains of research and exercising favorability towards neuromorphic computing as a strand of theoretical research in computing.

Globally, governments fund neuromorphic computing and BCI research. For instance, Synchron, a leading Australian BCI company now based in the United States, received funding from DARPA. However, unlike initiatives such as the US BRAIN project, which focus on neuroscience discoveries, China Brain Project states human-machine hybrid intelligence as an explicit goal. This strategic goal brings political incentives to scientific research by invoking military applications. In 2018, military-civil fusion was referenced in a program announcement about neural prosthetics, though the launch centered disabled veterans and did not extend directly to warfare (China Disabled Persons Federation, May 23, 2018).

Programing Innovation

China’s five-year plans establish key priorities for economic and social development and require provincial and local officials to establish detailed plans to meet those priorities. Cadres at the local and provincial levels ensure binding statistics that serve as metrics for plan priorities and to exercise control over local officials. Haihe Labs serve as an example: The investment in and the very creation of Haihe Labs and their Shengong series was stipulated by the Tianjin government’s proposal to meet the goals of the 14th five-year plan (Fujian Government, 2021).

As far back as the seventh five-year 1985 plan for 1986-1990, Party direction has invoked technology as a focus for industrial transformation and strategic importance (China Report, 1986). The 1985 document emphasizes industrial product transformation, special economic zones, strategy for acquiring foreign funds, and the stated goal to assimilate imported advanced technologies. The plan also mentions the establishment of a natural science fund to support basic research, though allusions to basic research are cursory, as the locus of strategy to transfer foreign technology transfer as a means to transform industry and spur economic growth.

In 2006 a fifteen-year plan, the Medium to Long-term Plan for the Development of Science and Technology, was issued at a time when China’s basic research share was six percent of total research and development (R&D) expenditure, compared with 25 percent in the United States and Europe, and 14 percent in South Korea and Russia (State Council, 2006; Asia Policy, 2007). R&D expenditure in China was concentrated on applications-based solutions funded to solve governance problems. Issues such as academic corruption compromised the capacity to create world-class S&T labs. A relationships-based culture within the bureaucracy awarded funding to scientists with long-standing relationships with bureaucrats, instead of evaluating projects based on scientific merit alone. Clusters of scientists would game the system by helping each other climb to the top for funding (Science, September 3, 2010; PLoS ONE, April 3, 2018). These elements and a political climate resistant to protest or whistleblowers hindered China’s own strategic goals of furthering science and technology research.

In 2010, the 12th five-year plan (2011–2015) placed much more central importance on scientific progress, focusing on the capacity of indigenous research and the construction of an “innovation country” (Xinhua, March 16, 2011). The 13th five-year plan (2016–2020) focused on innovation-driven development and was the catalyst for hundreds of new innovation hubs along with focus on named industries including energy vehicles, IT, and advanced medical devices (MOST, December 22, 2016; CSET, December 9, 2019). Recent academic research evaluates these efforts, highlighting some of the struggles of China’s innovation drive. Surveying 4.6 million patents filed in China between 1990 and 2014, one paper argues that bureaucratic targets for patents after 2006, combined with political competition, “pushed local governments to ‘game the numbers’ by channeling relatively more effort toward boosting non-novel—possibly junk—patents over novel patents” (Comparative Political Studies, November 3, 2023). This research adds to the literature framing China as a “low productivity superpower” and suggests that there is a more nuanced reality behind the headline figures of China’s indigenous innovation drive.

Most recently, the 14th five-year plan (2021–2025) has emphasized high-quality development and placed extensive focus on basic research, urging major breakthroughs in “key and core technologies (关键核心技术),” such as BCI and brain-computer fusion technology (脑机融合) more broadly. It also provides higher targets for R&D expenditure and for high-value invention patents per 10,000 people (Xinhua, March 3, 2021). The plan focuses on the establishment of China as a science powerhouse, characterized by “self-reliance and self-improvement (科技自立自强)”—the same phrase quoted above by a Haihe scientist. The plan stipulates a focus on basic research as a new pillar of focus without detracting from applied projects, and specifically urges investment in foundational resources for basic R&D such as resource banks, and a new platform for exchanging scientific research papers. As databases such as CNKI become increasingly inaccessible from outside the PRC, and government websites opt out of publishing statistics and legal documents, there is a possibility that the very organization of scientific knowledge-sharing and publication will suffer from an increasingly protectionist environment.

The Central Commission for Cybersecurity and Informatization’s provides further stipulations for the planning cycle related to technology development (Central Commission for Cybersecurity and Informatization, December 28, 2021),.  invoking a logic of innovation and strategy that relies on funding from the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NNSFC) and citing the need to “strengthen … strategic research deployments and scalable technological innovation in critical and advanced areas (加强 … 键前沿领域的战略研究布局和技术融通创新).” Specific technologies include integrated circuits, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, neuromorphic computing, neural chips (神经芯片), and BCIs. A strategic focus on BCI and neuromorphic computing may prove beneficial in mobilizing financial and political support for the development of BCI devices. However, as with other areas of substantial investment in innovation, breakthroughs are anything but assured.


China’s focus on neurotechnology and new theories at the core of AI development are significant. Successful innovations in basic applications would stimulate spillover effects in innovation and advance China’s prestige as a knowledge base. By naming BCI as a key technology, the Party promotes these devices irrespective of consumer markets or economic conditions. China’s political climate may permit more disregard of data and ethics concerns that restrict riskier experimentation in other parts of the world. But for China to succeed in its aims of becoming a leading knowledge center, it would need to adopt nonfiscal reforms for academic organizations and key laboratories.

As with any technology, the development of mind-reading technologies is colored by its social and political context. While medical breakthroughs are to be lauded, China’s context—the military-civil fusion strategy and the Party’s alignment with these technologies—must be considered. The development of such projects for defense-related (as opposed to medical) purposes is not without precedent. China’s BCI research must be understood in the context of the PRC’s wider innovation drive, and as such its prioritizing of BCI in recent years merits further attention.