Would you like to have a chip inside your brain? Elon Musk's Neuralink gives human brains a direct interface to digital devices - if successful that is. The goal is to implant devices in paralyzed humans, allowing them to control phones or computers.
This August, Elon Musk presented a new iteration of the Neuralink brain implant. The mindset behind it all is best described by Arielle Pardes in Wired as "machines with artificial intelligence are outpacing humankind. Ergo, implant computer chips in human brains to level up the species." The ultimate goal is for the chip to pick up on signals in the brain and then translate them into motor controls. While many in the field imagine using these neural interfaces to control a prosthetic limb or to cure paralyzed people (which are very bold goals considering), Musk describes the overall project as a way to "achieve symbiosis with artificial intelligence."
But how do the engineers and scientists at Neuralink try to achieve this? I found the following video that answers why we would need such a device in the first place (and yes, as always, it's a bandwidth issue - but look for yourself).
Neuralink's technology is quite stunning. This tiny brain implant has more than 1.000 electrodes and will possibly one day allow a person to transmit neuroelectrical activity to anything digital. This new technology is not exactly new. However, it surpasses current chips neuroscientists use as a standard today: the chip they use has 64 electrodes. Furthermore, the new "V2" device includes "sensors for motion, temperature, and pressure and 1,024 thin, flexible wires to pick up the electrical signals neurons put out while they're neuron-ing." Now comes something a bit scary to me: the chip is powered by an inductively charged battery that should last a full day. Basically, you'd have to stick a charger to your head at night.
Challenges of This Technology
One of the challenges is how the chip can fully function over a long time inside the brain. The mammalian brain is an unfriendly environment for anything that is not a brain. Imagine it as a massive knot of wires that corrodes most metals over time. As with all organs and human tissue, the brain also fights off intruders and has mechanisms to protect its electrodes and cells. The protector of neurons in the brain is called glia. These non-neuronal cells, in addition to supporting and protecting neurons, maintain homeostasis and form myelin. For the Neuralink device, this means that over time gliosis kills the electrode's ability to record. Therefore, Neuralink scientists will have to find materials that won't offset the glia cells to go nuclear on the electrode and won't break down over time. If they cannot find these materials, chances are that a patient with a Neuralink device will have to have the device removed sooner than later.
Another challenge is how easily the implant is implemented and removed. One of the main selling points of Neuralink is that it is an easy-to-implant, non-damaging, long-lived cybernetic implant. Neuroscientists aren't exactly sure how this implant could be implemented without damaging blood vessels and how it could remain in the brain over an extended period without doing so. And then, there is the biggest challenge of them all. Scientists don't fully understand the human brain in its complexity and entirety.
While Elon Musk is confident that his device will merge men and machines, creating new super-humans (which we actually need since data shows that people's IQ rates have steadily dropped since the mid-90s), neuroscientists still don't know exactly how different types of neurons work. To me, that is a huge concern. Furthermore, it is still a mystery how and how well these different types of neurons function. In other words: while it is relatively easy to detect and measure signals from the neuron, extracting meaning from the measurements is an entirely different story.
Remember the blog post on digital immortality? The main concern here is precisely the same: how do these measurements and data derived correlate with human dreams, hopes, memories, and thoughts? Or as Adam Rogers put it: "The electrical activity of the brain happens while you are thinking or remembering, but it may not be what you are thinking or remembering. Just being able to sense and record that activity isn't recording actual thought. It correlates, but may not cause."
It comes to show that the Neuralink idea can produce advancements in the field of neuroscience and improve processes along the way (remember, the technology helping people control prosthetic limbs with their mind already exists). However, unless the field has a scientific understanding of consciousness, I don't think I want to get this chip.
As is so often the case in Silicon Valley pitches, I miss the discussion of principles that must be held. How do we see the future for all of us? Why does the premise have to be that we all need such a chip? Do I misunderstand the underlining message? Because if not, then what dangers are we really exposed to should the chip in our brain get hacked?
Let me know what your thoughts are on this topic - and as always, stay curious, and check out the articles and resources I have used for this article:
Neuralink Is Impressive Tech, Wrapped in Musk Hype by Adam Rogers
Elon Musk Is About to Show Off His Neuralink Brain Implant by Arielle Pardes
Furthermore, check out this video about Neuralink by Cold Fusion