Unsupervised Learning for Brain-Computer Interfaces Based on Event-Related Potentials: Review and Online Comparison [Research Frontier]

David Hübner, Thibault Verhoeven, Klaus Robert Müller, Pieter Jan Kindermans, Michael Tangermann

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Citations (Scopus)


One of the fundamental challenges in brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) is to tune a brain signal decoder to reliably detect a user's intention. While information about the decoder can partially be transferred between subjects or sessions, optimal decoding performance can only be reached with novel data from the current session. Thus, it is preferable to learn from unlabeled data gained from the actual usage of the BCI application instead of conducting a calibration recording prior to BCI usage. We review such unsupervised machine learning methods for BCIs based on event-related potentials of the electroencephalogram. We present results of an online study with twelve healthy participants controlling a visual speller. Online performance is reported for three completely unsupervised learning methods: (1) learning from label proportions, (2) an expectation-maximization approach and (3) MIX, which combines the strengths of the two other methods. After a short ramp-up, we observed that the MIX method not only defeats its two unsupervised competitors but even performs on par with a state-of-the-art regularized linear discriminant analysis trained on the same number of data points and with full label access. With this online study, we deliver the best possible proof in BCI that an unsupervised decoding method can in practice render a supervised method unnecessary. This is possible despite skipping the calibration, without losing much performance and with the prospect of continuous improvement over a session. Thus, our findings pave the way for a transition from supervised to unsupervised learning methods in BCIs based on eventrelated potentials.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)66-77
Number of pages12
JournalIEEE Computational Intelligence Magazine
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2018 May

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Theoretical Computer Science
  • Artificial Intelligence


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