The alarm wakes you for work, but not your spouse. That’s because the alarm rings inside of your head. With a thought, you turn it off. You program your car to take you to work without touching any buttons, and once arriving, you work on a patient who’s suffered from a movement disorder. A few tweaks to a chip in her brain, and the bothersome tics recede. During the surgery, your eyes zoom in and enhance the portions you need to see. On the way home, you change into a jacket sewn by a man who directed the stitches with his mind.
Is this the future we could be looking at? Tesla founder and tech giant Elon Musk sure hopes so in a collaboration with Neuralink.
Although none of these possibilities are close at hand for consumers, Musk hopes that he’s taking the first steps towards offering a brain chip for humans. Neuralink chips are a super-dense electrode technology currently being tested on animals.
MIT Technology Review explains, “Neuralink isn’t the first to believe that brain implants could extend or restore human capabilities. Researchers began placing probes in the brains of paralyzed people in the late 1990s in order to show that signals could let them move robot arms or computer cursors. And mice with visual implants really can perceive infrared rays.
Building on that work, Neuralink says it hopes to further develop such brain-computer interfaces (or BCIs) to the point where one can be installed in a doctor’s office in under an hour. ‘This actually does work,’ Musk said of people who have controlled computers with brain signals. ‘It’s just not something the average person can use effectively.’”
Pig Brains …Sing??
In a demonstration live-streamed with the intention to stir up excitement for the project and recruit engineers, Musk trotted out three little piggies, one who is a pilot in the Neuralink program.
According to MIT Tech Review, the pig hooked up to the brain chip played a series of sounds, which Musk claimed were neurons firing in real time. The buzzing, chirping sound is familiar to scientists who have been experimenting with the technology, but were probably unimpressive to the uninitiated.
Neuralink Uses a Different Approach
Per The Verge, unlike existing technology that requires rigid spikes of metal, Musk’s technology is more pliable. “Machines that connect to the human brain and translate the electrical signals to a computer have been around since 2006. Since then, neuroscientists and engineers have made incremental improvements to that technology. Musk’s Neuralink slots into that work: the company developed a system of thin wires that snake into the brain, which may cause less damage than the usual rigid spikes. But Musk’s ambitions also go far beyond altering the architecture of machine-brain devices. Apart from treating brain-based medical conditions, he also said during a recent press event that, eventually, Neuralink’s device could enable things like telepathy or interactions between the brain and artificial intelligence.”
MIT reports, “To neuroscientists, the most intriguing development shown Friday may have been what Musk called ‘the link,’ a silver-dollar-sized disk containing computer chips, which compresses and then wirelessly transmits signals recorded from the electrodes. The link is about as thick as the human skull, and Musk said it could plop neatly onto the surface of the brain through a drill hole that could then be sealed with superglue.
‘I could have a Neuralink right now and you wouldn’t know it,’ Musk said.”
However, Musk still struggles with one issue plaguing other brain electrodes; corrosion. A decade of residing in a moist brain can wear on even the most durable conductive metal. Musk hopes to make the chips rechargeable by induction coil, and easily swapped out as upgrades become available.
Health Advance or Cool Gadget?
Athough Musk and Neuralink seem determined to present the chip as a potential treatment for mental illness and health conditions, the presentation continuously drifted back towards the fantastic and the ultra-convenient. Musk is well known for embracing technology that is useful but, “cool,” and it seems like Neuralink is struggling with it’s identity.
Per MIT, “Despite the long list of medical applications Musk presented, Neuralink didn’t show it’s ready to commit to any one of them. During the event, the company did not disclose plans to start a clinical trial, a surprise to those who believed that would be its next logical step.
A neurosurgeon who works with the company, Matthew MacDougall, did say the company was considering trying the implant on paralyzed people—for instance, to allow them to type on a computer, or form words. Musk went further: ‘I think long-term you can restore someone full body motion.’
It is unclear how serious the company is about treating disease at all. Musk continually drifted away from medicine and back to a much more futuristic ‘general population device,’ which he called the company’s “overall” aim. He believes that people should connect directly to computers in order to keep pace with artificial intelligence.
‘On a species level, it’s important to figure out how we coexist with advanced AI, achieving some AI symbiosis,’ he said, ‘such that the future of world is controlled by the combined will of the people of the earth. That might be the most important thing that a device like this achieves.’”
When Will Consumers Be Able to Chip Up?
Both Musk and Neuralink representatives avoided promising a timeline. Because the technology is so controversial, the company will want to have the safety as assured as possible before moving into human trials. They still struggle with many basic elements of the product. So for now, consumers will have to listen to pig brains singing and dream of what could be.