By José Manuel Nieto Jalil
Some years ago, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg announced that their next conquest was to fuse the human mind with a computer to achieve transhumanism. Almost automatically, bioethics experts called for updated policies to avoid intrusions at such intimate levels.
In March last year, Elon Musk, the creator of PayPal, SpaceX, Tesla Motors, SolarCity, or Hyperloop, announced that his new company Neuralink aims and is working on developing cognitive systems to enable human brains to connect, merge, and interact with computers. He announced that work is already underway to link the human brain to an interface through the creation of micro-sized devices.
The company’s goal, Musk announced, was initially to bring something to market that would help people suffering from some serious brain injuries, such as strokes, cancer injuries, congenital problems, and others. Then, its goal would be to work on enabling communication between the human brain and the cloud directly and wirelessly.
According to experts, artificial intelligence and machine learning will create computers so sophisticated and wonderful that humans will need to implant neural cords in their brains to keep up with them.
Finally, in July, Elon Musk and his team presented one of their first advances, an interface of threads sewn into the brain to help patients with amputated limbs move their robotic prostheses through thought. The presentation took place in San Francisco and could go down in history as a transcendental step forward in the creation of cyborgs, the symbiosis between human and artificial intelligence (AI).
The technology consists of two parts:
- One is the implantation of a tiny four-by-four millimeter microchip in the brain, which will connect to thousands of microscopic wires thinner than human hair, and composed of thousands of electrodes that will be inserted directly into the brain through four holes drilled in the skull. The electrodes will monitor so-called neural spikes, that is, the electrical impulses that indicate brain activity. The chip, known as the N1 Sensor, will be able to read from the brain and influence the brain’s behavior.
- On the other hand, there is the robot developed to insert and sew these threads to the brain at a rate of six threads (192 electrodes) per minute. The combination of both provides wiring that has the main advantage of avoiding blood vessels, which reduces the negative aspects in case of inflammatory responses.
This technology is not a new idea; similar interfaces already exist, but Neuralink is much less invasive and harmful than existing systems. The idea is to connect electrodes to the brain through laser technology with external wires that end up in a sort of switch placed behind the ear (similar to a hearing aid) that via Bluetooth or USB connection can connect to our cell phone. An application installed on the cell phone will manage the entire program.
At the moment, Elon Musk’s technology has already been tested on rats and monkeys with a high level of success, and of course, they want to start testing on people in the second half of 2020. However, they need to obtain the approval of the Food and Drug Administration, the USA medical regulator.
In the company’s first experiments, they inserted 3,000 electrodes into the brains of rats, and the number could increase to 10,000. In its initial phases, this technology will focus on patients with robotic limbs, but the goal is to extend it to patients who have lost their speech or hearing. The ultimate goal is to make commercial interfaces that allow us to operate any of them from our cell phones or computers using only our minds.
Elon Musk is the creator of SolarCity, a company dedicated to the use of solar energy; of PayPal, the world’s most famous online payment platform; of Tesla Motors, the benchmark brand in electric cars; of SpaceX, the firm with which he has just tested the world’s most powerful rockets; from Hyperloop, which are basically giant vacuum tubes designed to transport goods and passengers faster than today’s high-speed trains; from OpenAI, a non-profit organization that wants to promote user-friendly artificial intelligence; and from The Boring Company, which sells everything from baseball caps to recreational flame throwers.
Thanks to this invention, people responsible for the project believe it is very likely that in a matter of two years, a person, just by thinking of a sentence, will automatically write it down on the computer. The company’s goal is to generate up to 100 words per minute, a milestone considering that a person, with his or her fingers on a mobile phone’s touch screen, can type about 27 words per minute. With Musk’s invention, it would be four or five times faster. It would mean using a computer or any connected device, such as a television, refrigerator, and, of course, a cell phone, with just one thought. That is the true nature and ambition of Neuralink.
In short, among the first practical applications that Musk and his team foresee for Neuralink’s technology, we can highlight its goal to restore the ability to speak, listen, or move to people who have lost these abilities, as well as to treat various mental conditions. Another promising field in implant research is the recovery of sight for people who have become blind but preserve the cerebral visual cortex.
The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has long had an interest in neurotechnology for military purposes. DARPA is preparing for a future where the combination of unmanned systems, artificial intelligence, and cyber operations may lead to conflicts developing over time horizons too short for humans to manage them effectively using only today’s technology.
The results of Neuralink and Musk are promising, but they will obviously open the door to many new dangers. There are already computer attacks today that take advantage of devices connected to the cloud and the IoT; it is scary to think about what will happen when our brains are connected. In any case, Musk still has a long way to go to solve these problems.
Whether the motivation for building brain-computer interfaces is military, medical, recreational, or to communicate with artificial intelligence, observers believe that Musk’s entry will give a boost to this promising new area.
About the author:
Dr. José Manuel Nieto Jalil is Director of Mechatronics at the School of Engineering and Science at Tecnológico de Monterrey, Sonora Norte campus.