With Tesla and Space X, Elon Musk made electric cars and private spaceflight ubiquitous. Now, with Neuralink, he hopes he can do the same for mind-machine interfaces.
What is Neuralink?
Elon Musk wants to control machines with just the power of thought. To that end, in July 2019 Musk and his team revealed that they had developed ultrafine ‘threads’ that can be woven into your brain to listen in on your neurons. The company has also built a robot that can perform the delicate surgery, under the supervision of a neurosurgeon.
When the company was first launched in 2016, Musk said he wanted to help humans compete in a world where artificial intelligence had surpassed them – to give us more ‘bandwidth’. But with this new announcement the researchers have turned their attention to helping those with brain-related disorders.
How does it work?
The N1, a 4mm-square chip, is implanted into the skull. Attached to the chip are wires thinner than a human hair, which reach out into the brain. These threads are placed close to important parts of the brain and are able to detect messages as they are relayed between neurons, recording each impulse and stimulating their own. Neuralink says the N1 is able to connect with 1,000 different brain cells, and that a patient might have as many as 10 N1 chips implanted.
The chips connect wirelessly to a wearable device that hooks over the user’s ear, much like a hearing aid, and contains a Bluetooth radio and a battery.
Neuralink says the first devices will be implanted via traditional neurosurgery, but eventually the chips will be inserted safely and virtually painlessly through small incisions by a robot surgeon.
What kind of conditions could be treated using this technology?
The technology could help with neurological disorders, which are rooted in the inability of the brain to connect with nerves around the body. These include epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease, but also paraplegia and quadriplegia following injuries to spinal nerves.
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Does it have to be stuck inside my brain?
Unfortunately, the technology needs to be close to each nerve in order to pick up signals – anything further than 60 microns wouldn’t be able to detect individual impulses (1 micron = 0.001mm).
What are the risks?
Neuralink will need to learn from the successes (and failures) of existing brain-computer interface technologies. The threads connecting electrodes to the chip need to be flexible, to minimise the damage to surrounding brain tissue. And if this technology is to be given to patients with pre-existing conditions, there are also risks associated with operating on those whose immune systems may be compromised.
Musk reassured the audience that implanting the device would be as safe as having laser eye surgery, but the company is yet to seek FDA approval, which it will need to market the device.
There aren’t just health risks, either: society will need to consider what to do with the data recorded by the N1. What are the ethics behind monitoring someone’s every thought, deed and emotion?
So when could it become a reality?
Musk hopes for human studies to begin as early as 2020, a date some say is wildly optimistic. At the launch, Neuralink’s CEO Max Hodak stated that the first patients would be those with quadriplegia due to spinal cord injuries. These patients will have four chips implanted, connecting with up to 4,000 different neurons.
The benefits extend beyond the disabled. Musk hopes that the technology will become commonplace, turning the humans into cyborg beings that can achieve a symbiosis with artificial intelligence – something he believes will be essential to the survival of our species.
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