Neuralink: Man As The Machine?
A chip that lets you stream music directly to your brain. Sounds like a sci-fi novel. In July of 2019, Elon Musk announced that this won’t be fiction for long.
Neuralink is Musk’s latest effort to accelerate human connectivity and pace-keeping with AI. In the same way your phone is a bridge between you and your data, Neuralink will be a bridge between your brain and technology. The main difference is that Neuralink’s touchscreen will be all in your head. Images you “see” won’t pass through the eye and optic nerve: they’re going right into your brain.
How does Musk plan to push technology so far forward in a single step? Success relies on three key components:
1. Groundbreaking electrode implants
2. An ultra-precise surgical robot
3. The algorithms to handle these massive amounts of data
Elon Musk Brain Chip: Beginnings and Vision
Elon Musk forayed into brain science as early as 2016. With the help of eight of the world’s top minds on neuroscience and nanomachines, he founded a company to research and treat brain diseases. The company flew under the radar for a few years. That is, until 2019, when Neuralink (and all of its mind-blowing potential) were announced.
Neuralink went from virtual anonymity to being responsible for the world’s most powerful brain electrodes. They developed a surgery robot that is well on its way to making the implant process as simple as Lasik surgery.
Last but not least, they created the N1 chip. Its tiny processor is designed to be implanted right into the head. It coordinates all of the work neural electrodes are doing. This whole system connects wirelessly to a wearable device called “The Link.” Picture a Bluetooth headset that syncs up to your smartphone for full control.
Musk’s Vision for Neuralink
Neuralink has major potential to help paralytics and people with other neurological disorders, brain damage and even spinal damage. What started as a medical treatment turned into a full-on brain upgrade. There are plans for Neuralink to be able to influence emotions just by stimulating nerve centers in the brain. Imagine “turning up” your enthusiasm about work on a rough day or “muting” your anxiety for a speech. One officially planned feature is the aforementioned music playlist, delivered straight to your brain.
In Musk’s own words, Neuralink is here to let humans achieve a “symbiosis with artificial intelligence.” It’s here to work with the brain—just like your phone or computer already works with—you, but without that extra layer of interfacing. Plus, it will be able to “read” and “write” neurons. With this, Musk believes we can take a great leap toward healing brain damage and improving quality of life.
As futuristic as this sounds, in 2019, Neuralink already ran successful trials in mice and chimps. They’ve had dozens of successful implants. In one test, a monkey was able to control a computer with its brain.
The original plan was to continue with Neuralink human trials in 2020, pending FDA approval. The company has kept quiet on its progress since 2019, but Musk has made it clear the program is still alive and well.
Elon Musk fans are no strangers to shock and awe. All signs point to Neuralink continuing to develop. Even if driven by Musk’s ambition and personality, it’s unlikely to go the way of Google glasses. Maybe sooner rather than later, people could be ordering Tesla software updates: from the comfort of their own brains.
Neuralink and Technology
Mostly in the medical sector, some kinds of brain interfacing have been in play since the 1970s. Application has been limited by low quantity data, minimal control and very impractical installs. Imagine having to wear a bike helmet covered in ping pong balls to control a robot arm with the precision of a crane game—that’s what we’ve been working with. This new Elon Musk brain chip is ready to rocket over those hurdles.
Here are some of the tech details:
The sensor, called the N1, will only be 8mm in diameter and 1mm high. For some scale, take a look at your pointer finger. You could easily fit four on the tip.
That piece will be implanted into the scalp and connect to a series of tiny electrode threads. Those electrode threads would then be embedded directly into the brain. In total, you’ll have 10,000 electrodes just microns away from your neurons.
All of this gets installed by a custom-built, partially automated surgical robot. Neuralink’s goal is to have it fully automated for release. Right now, it is overseen by a neurosurgeon.
This surgeon-bot team can perform the surgery time in under an hour. They’re working to make it even faster, using only local anesthesia. Installing the chip won’t require stitches, because the incision is only 2mm. The plan is for this surgery to be convenient and non-invasive.
Goals and Outcomes
Musk wants Neuralink to eliminate the bottleneck between your fingers and the information you need. You’ll be tapped in to all the knowledge you could ever want. Imagine navigating new cities and scheduling appointments faster than you can snap your fingers. Actually, faster than you can think about snapping them. Search engines and multi-second responses will be a thing of the past.
When we look past “reading” and talk about “writing” to specific neurons in the brain, the potential is nearly limitless. This is how new skills are learned. Technology like this could be a basis for redefining skill development and learning.
To tap into that potential, developers will have a new frontier to master. We won’t be talking about Graphical User Interfaces; instead, we’ll have Mental User Interfaces. Since we’ll be navigating faster and expecting immediate responses, there will undoubtedly be a simplifying effect. Tech developers who can provide the quickest, most straightforward results will lead the pack.
With literal brain-access comes an increased need for security. Between the massive amounts of biometric data collected and the device’s ability to act on the brain directly, the failsafe will need to be extensive and robust. Brain hacking won’t be a quippy platform name for a skill development system: it will be an actual threat.
Risks and rewards together, Neuralink could change our lives.
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