Since its founding in 2016, Elon Musk’s neuro-tech company Neuralink has been highly secretive about its work on developing brain-machine interfaces. In 2017, Wait But Why’s Tim Urban gave us a glimpse of how the future looks like with Neuralink — through a long-form post — after he got a phone call from Musk and got the opportunity to learn more about the wizardry from the wizards themselves.
Little was known about what Neuralink was up to until recently, when it broke the silence and showed off its tech to the public at a presentation at the California Academy of Sciences.
Here’s what we know:
Neuralink is developing ultra-high bandwidth brain-machine interfaces
At the presentation, the company described a custom chip which reads and processes the electrical signals from the brain and transmits it through a USB-C connection after amplification.
The eventual aim is to have a wireless connection on a sensor called the “N1”. When fully functional, a person would have four of these sensors embedded onto the brain which would communicate to a hearing-aid like device behind the ear. The whole system is supposedly controlled by an iPhone app.
The interface uses really thin and flexible threads — 4 to 6μm in width — which are able to transfer large amounts of data at high speeds between the brain and device, according to a whitepaper published recently.
Neuralink has also developed a robot to perform the insertion of threads.
It would soon allow paralyzed people to control artificial limbs, computers or smartphones
Musk hopes to have clinical trials on humans by the end of next year before which they’ve to get the approval from the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration). They currently perform tests on lab rats and Musk stated that “a monkey has been able to control a computer with its brain” at the presentation.
Musk wants “to achieve a symbiosis with artificial intelligence”
“This [effectively merging with AI] is not a mandatory thing! This is a thing that you can choose to have if you want. I think this is going to be something really important at a civilization-scale level. I’ve said a lot about A.I. over the years, but I think even in a benign A.I. scenario we will be left behind,” Elon said during the presentation.
Neuralink is recruiting
Musk’s main reason for doing the presentation was for Neuralink recruitment. The company has job openings and is looking for skilled people with variety of expertise to develop neural interfaces.
Here’s what we still don’t know:
How safe is the procedure?
Playing with the brain is no less challenging than rocket science. The main challenge to be dealt with is the inflammatory response from the brain due to implants and another challenge is the fact that things can’t be put in and out of the brain, without damaging it.
The machine at Neuralink is able to insert 6 threads per minute after drilling tiny and precise holes in the skull and the company looks forward to making the operation safer and similar to the Lasik eye surgery, using laser.
According to Numenta, “The thin electrodes which Neuralink uses, are more likely to break than thicker electrodes, and currently cannot be removed when broken or when rendered useless after glial scar forming.”
So the implants need to be break-proof, scar-resistant and must last for a lifetime, but do they?
What if someone hacks into Neuralink, hence the brain?
While Neuralink aims to make interfaces to treat brain diseases in the short-term, Musk’s long-term goals include “symbiosis with artificial intelligence” and “human enhancement”, which might sound terrifying to some. Those goals are a long shot, but well worth trying.
It’s unclear what the tech can and will actually be used for.
You may want to give Ian Banks’ The Culture series a read. It describes a sci-fi brain-computer interface called the “neural lace”, from which Musk got partly interested in the idea of Neuralink.