Neuralink
Elon Musk's corporation, Neuralink, is developing a brain-machine interface, allowing the brain to connect to a computer through implants.

Technology is the future. It is what connects the whole world instantly. It is what leads to modernisation, to the evolution of the entire human race. But to which extent are people ready to accept technological innovations?

The famous and controversial Elon Musk plans to bring the human brain online. His corporation, Neuralink, is developing a brain-machine interface. That means the human brain will be able to connect to a computer through tiny implants, like chips.

Overview

Founded in 2016, the San Francisco-based Neuralink Corporation’s major mission is to help people, aiming to implant chips that connect to the brain and to link humans with artificial intelligence. Although the company formed quite recently, it already benefits from a substantial start-up capital. By 2019, it had received $158 million, of which $100 million was from Musk.

Musk states that Neuralink has one important goal: to help people who have been involved in accidents by treating neurological disorders.  In order to do that, the company is developing a brain-machine interface, aiming to establish a certain symbiosis between humans and artificial intelligence.

As science-fiction as it may sound, the company’s ambitions are to enable the human mind to interface directly with external devices, such as computers and phones. According to Musk, the goal is not to computerise one’s brain, but to find a solution to fix complex neurological issues. “If you know somebody who’s broken their neck, broken their spine — we can solve that with a chip. And this is something that I think most people don’t understand yet.” Musk says. Implanting chips in paralysed humans, will allow them to control computers and phones with their minds.

In the long-term, Neuralink hopes to achieve a certain level of symbiosis with the artificial intelligence. On the assumption that AI will become so advanced that it will surpass human intelligence, Musk believes that people should keep the pace or be left behind. And the best way to keep up with the advances of AI is by means of brain-machines interfaces. As Musk states: “With a brain-machine interface, we can actually go along for the ride. And we can have the option of merging with AI.”

Neuralink: How does it work?

Brain-machines interfaces could restore the sensory and motor function and treat neurological disorders. This is done by the implantation of flexible threads, which have lower risk of damaging the brain than the materials usually used in such interfaces. These threads would also facilitate the transfer of higher volumes of data. With a width of 4 to 6 µm, the threads are much thinner than a human hair, and would be embedded automatically by a machine.

In the future, Neuralink’s scientists plan to get through the skull using a laser beam, rather than the current practice of drilling holes. Neuroscientists at Stanford University will begin early experiments. Progress was already made with testing on rats and monkeys, but there is a long way to success.

The precursor of Neuralink is BrainGate. Matthew Nagle was the first person who received a brain implant, in 2006. He was able to play Pong by only using his mind. However, Neuralink would bring an important advance. BrainGate used the Utah Array, a series of rigid needles, allowing a maximum of 128 electrode channels. But the stiff needles could damage the brain. Neuralink uses flexible threads and relies on a neurosurgical robot to automatically insert 6 threads per minute. That means 192 electrodes, allowing more data to transmit from the brain.

What are the advances so far?

Neuralink has already developed a chip that can read and amplify signals received from the brain. The chip can transmit data only using a wired connection (USB-C) at the moment. The objective is to make it work wirelessly. The team is working on a product, the “N1 sensor”, that is implanted and transmits data over a Wi-Fi network.

The company is currently testing its product on rats and monkeys. Musk declared that one monkey was able to achieve some level of computer control with its mind, although he didn’t give further details.

The company’s hope is to start testing on humans within a year. But FDA approval for such devices is not given lightly, and the process is slow. The head surgeon at Neuralink, Matthew MacDougall, says safety is the primary objective and that he plans to ultimately develop a procedure that is as minimally-invasive as possible.

According to Musk, the technology should be ready in the next five to ten years.

What are the concerns with Neuralink?

It’s human nature to question novelty and be reluctant to adopt new technology. Some people have concerns about the security implications of Elon Musk’s Neuralink. Questions have been raised whether such application is ethical.

Technology has a major flaw: hackability. Security is an important issue when considering connecting the human brain to the internet. There are questions about what applications or websites will be able to access a person’s Neuralink data. Cloud-stored data is prone to cyber-attacks and wireless technology has many vulnerabilities. Experts say Neuralink should expect hackers to try and compromise the technology. How to handle these threats remains to be seen.

In addition, Neuralink will likely face serious acceptance problems. People are not easily inclined to accept such innovations. History and current events show there is a tendency toward disapproving everything even remotely related to chip implantation.