Neuralink: What is Elon Musk Actually Doing?

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Neuralink is a company that was founded by billionaire Elon Musk and others in July 2016 and is primarily based in San Francisco. Musk has stated that his core mission is to form a tighter and high-fidelity bond between people and computers, to decrease the risk of artificial intelligence (AI) surpassing human capabilities. Neuralink has three goals:

  1. Treating brain disorders and helping people who have had accidents.
  2. Creating a brain-machine interface (BMIs).
  3. Building toward a potential symbiosis with AI.
Source: “Can Elon Musk’s Neuralink Make Us Smarter With Brain Chips?” Bold Business (January 2019).

BMIs are computer-based systems that acquire brain signals, process them and transform them into commands. These commands are then transferred to an output device which carries out the action. BMIs were first researched in the 1970s at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Today, BMIs are often used to assist individuals with motor or sensory impairments, through robotic limbs for example. The first neuroprosthetic devices implanted in humans appeared in the 1990s, with the first being the pacemaker.

Source: Systems Neuroengineering: understanding and interacting with the brain. Edelman, et al. (2015) Engineering.

The exact work and progress taking place at Neuralink is difficult to uncover, however Musk has been revealing its progress bit by bit over Twitter and in interviews. Musk has stated that neurosurgical robots will fit flexible threads into the brain, in a similar process to Lasik laser eye surgery, connecting the brain to an implanted computer chip, which will all be controlled via an iPhone app. In his recent paper (Musk 2019), he revealed that they built small electrode threads, with up to 3,072 electrodes distributed across 96 threads. They also built a neurosurgical robot that could insert 6 threads (192 electrodes) per minute. The paper also stated that a single USB-C cable provides full-bandwidth data streaming from the device, recording from all channels simultaneously.

Source: “Elon Musk’s Neuralink Proclaimed to Cure Many Neurological Disorders”. Medium. Vasishta, May 2020.

Musk has also stated that the chip will be able to retrain specific parts of the brain in order to cure depression and addiction. Essentially Musk believes that it will be able to “fix anything that’s wrong with the brain”, including restoring eyesight, hearing, limb movements, and more. On Joe Rogan’s podcast, Musk also stated that Neuralink’s technology would render human language obsolete within the next 5 to 10 years, and that one would only talk for sentimental reasons: “you would be able to communicate very quickly and with far more precision… I’m not sure what would happen to language. In a situation like this it would kind of be like The Matrix. You want to speak a different language? No problem, just download the program.” Neuralink has received a surge of attention recently (July 2020) as Musk revealed on Twitter that his Neuralink chip will allow you to stream music directly to your brain.

Source: Elon Musk on Twitter.

The company revealed in 2019 that they had performed successful trials on mice and apes and were looking to begin their trials on humans in 2020. However, there has not been any news on these trials yet.

Although Neuralink’s vision and progress has impressed so many, it has also been controversial amongst the AI community. For example, Ben Lamm, the CEO of Hypergiant, has stated that he does not believe that Neuralink will prevent AI from surpassing human abilities, and that we should instead focus our AI research on “our most pressing needs”. Lamm, like many others, is also concerned about the secrecy within Neuralink and the speed at which Musk says it is advancing. Lamm has stated that he believes the public should be engaged with the narrative around BMIs in order to make it a societal question, rather than having it “assigned to us”. Another controversy stated by Forbes, is the issue of having more multinationals with huge influence over the public’s lives – they believe that there should be careful consideration before we “add our brain signals to that list”.

There is no doubt that Neuralink is an astonishing technology that aims to do things which have never been thought of or attempted before. Only time (and Musk’s Twitter) will tell how far this will all go.

Elon Musk’s 2019 Neuralink presentation can be watched here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lA77zsJ31nA

Sources:
1. “An integrated brain-machine interface platform with thousands of channels”, Elon Musk, Neuralink. August 2019. BioRxiv.
2. Neuralink News, The Independent. 2019-2020.
3. “Neuralink needs careful consideration, not hasty commercialization”, Charles Towers-Clark. Forbes. July 2019.

1 thought on “Neuralink: What is Elon Musk Actually Doing?

  1. Very interesting! Will this also be the cure to dementia? and memory loss? with the potential to store our memories… and then potentially modify them… Promising, exciting, but also scary stuff!

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