The amalgamation of the mind with the machine has been widely used in fictional media, cyborgs being a clique trope within the science fiction world. Transcending human limitations, to use machinery to enhance our capabilities. Although, evolving via harnessing machines, is slowly morphing from fiction into reality, with the emergence of ‘Neuralink’.
Neuralink Wants To Achieve “Symbiosis With Artificial Intelligence”
The San Francisco based company Neuralink, was founded by Elon Musk in 2016, with the grandiose long term goal of creating “symbiosis with artificial intelligence”. It aims to implant computer chips into the human brain, accompanied by 1024 electrodes. The device is set to cure neurological conditions, alongside the symbiosis of bridging humankind with AI.
Musk And His History Of Pushing Technological Boundaries
Elon Musk has a previous history of pushing technological boundaries, being the founder of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, both disruptive in their respective fields. Therefore, presenting the endearing neuroscience start-up was naturally the next progression. When questioned about the origins and inspiration for Neuralink, Musk has been outspoken regarding AI threats to humanity. Musk deems his Neuralink technology to be an effort “to keep up” with machines.
Neuralink Prototype Demonstration
On August 28th, 2020, Elon Musk, unveiled a live-streamed demonstration of his new technology. He demonstrated the Neuralink prototype on pigs, who had the device implanted 2 months ago. The pigs appeared to be comfortable, indistinguishable from other pig behaviors, despite the implant.
The demonstration showed a screen displaying neural firing activity from the pig brain, transmitted from the Neuralink device. Musk went on to display the prototype appearance, a small device, the mere size of a coin, accompanied by 1024 thin wires.
The device has sensory mechanisms for monitoring temperature, pressure, and motion. It provided a 12-hour battery life, in which wireless charging is required, which has been thought to be troublesome considering the device is implanted in the skull.
Musk Acknowledges Challenges Of His Product
Musk acknowledged challenges, such as the biocompatibility of foreign objects in the human body, alongside longevity. Considering the chip will be implanted in the brain indefinitely, infections and immune responses were to be of concern. Furthermore, non-invasive surgery to implant the Neuralink into the brain was proposed to be done by a robot surgeon, since the link filaments are to be placed with machine-like precision.
The robot surgeon was created, in collaboration with Woke Studios, designed with zero room for error. Understanding the implications, Woke Studios commented in a press release that if the machine “were to vibrate and shift even a fraction of a millimeter, the results could be catastrophic,’.
Furthermore, Loren Frank, a neuroscientist at UCSF, stated “Having that work in a human brain for a long time without problems, without destroying a bunch of blood vessels and so on, is a really hard biological problem”. Furthermore, the company will face a host of formalities, such as government-approved human testing, and convincing people to have a robot surgeon implant a device into their skull, and deliver 1024 wired stitches into their brain.
Neuroscience professor Ralph Adolphs, of California Institute of Technology, explained “The primary initial application will be for people who are ill and for clinical reasons it is justified to implant such a chip into their brain. It would be unethical to do so right now in a healthy person.”
Although Musk has a previous track record for theatrical scientific endeavors, the excitement was stirred. Claims were made in the presentation that in the future, Neuralink would be able to record and replay memories and be used via telepathy.
Is The Technology Right Behind The Corner?
There is little related to this technology currently, and tools that neuroscientists currently use to stimulate the brain are cumbersome, dangerous, and outdated. Deep brain stimulation (DBS) are electrodes embedded deep in the brain, destroying brain tissue, only accessing a small area to fire electrical impulses, stimulating brain neuronal activity.
Applications of DBS extend to treating depression in extreme circumstances, Parkinson’s disease, and others. However, there are many side effects, mostly attributed to the destruction of brain tissue caused by electrode insertion. Neuralink technology is the size of a coin, much less invasive due to its superficial contact, being placed within the skull. The 1024 protrusions, similar to neutron axons, are inserted into the brain from the “link”, and these act as electrical electrodes, extending over a wide area. Head scientist at Allen Institute, Christof Koch, said “Musk now has a device that’s at least 10 times better. It’s at least 1,000 channels and it’s all streaming, so that’s pretty cool, right?”.
Neuralink Outlined Medical Applications Of Their Device
The company outlined medical applications of the device, to help treat a wide array of problems, including but not limited to memory loss, brain damage, seizures, blindness, and depression. Musk said on a webcast interview, that “an implantable device can actually solve these problems”. Neurosurgery professor of Feinstein Institute said he “cant imagine any of the suggested diseases could see the solution, in sooner than 10 years”. Due to the brain complexity, neuroscientists are still trying to understand the intricacies and the systems which cause these diseases, therefore finding solutions is troublesome. Given an unsteady basis to formulate a solution, neuroscientists are skeptical of the medical applications.
Polarising Views From The Experts Following The Presentation
Following Musk’s demonstration, there were polarising views from medical specialists, mostly from neuroscientists, who are well affiliated with the complexities of the brain. Ralph Adolphs said the presentation was “a huge technical achievement and tremendously exciting”. Conversely, a Neurology professor at John Hopkins University, John Krakauer, stated “The device we saw was placed over a single sensorimotor area, if we want to read thoughts rather than movements (assuming we knew their neural basis) where do we put it? How many will we need?”.
Neuralink’s ultimate objective was to create a “symbiotic relationship between humans and computers”. With the current pace of computer technological innovation, the goal helps humanity keep up with machines. The singularity is a hypothetical point in time, in which machine intelligence becomes irreversible and too complex, too smart for humans to control. Krakauer said in relation to this, “the argument is if you can’t avoid the singularity, join it. I’m sorry but this angle is just ridiculous.”
The brain is a complex biological processor, with a network of deep connections and processes. Neuroscientists are still trying to understand how the brain works, analyzing the interplay of over a billion neurons interacting over a trillion synapses. The complexity is unfathomable and mysterious, disguised by its unassuming appearance. Neuralink is the first technology to attempt to be synonymous with human biology and AI, and although as ambitious it may be, it does lay the foundation for what’s to come
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