We all know that Elon Musk is a game-changer or it would be correct to say that he is a magician. His ideas are extraordinary, and he doesn’t hesitate to bring them to reality with all the means available. Beginning as a founder of one of the biggest online-payments company PayPal, and since then, he has announced his intention to revolutionize trains, cars, intercontinental flight, space travel, and city driving. SpaceX, his famous aerospace company, has begun work on the infrastructure to beam internet down to Earth from satellites in orbit around the planet. And a few weeks ago, Musk shifted his public ambitions to his next big target: the human brain.
In a live stream, late Tuesday night, Neuralink, a company owned by Musk, announced that it is developing a brain-machine interface that will connect the human brain to computers. This will allow people to control computers and other devices with their mind. Not surprising if it is coming from a man with bold claims.
So What Did Neuralink Do?
It was a 3-hour event which was part marketing display and part dry technical explainer. Elon Musk and his team members described the brain-machine interface design which will be a tiny chip connected to dozens of thin wires. The wires are 4 to 6 μm in width, which makes them considerably thinner than a human hair. The chip features a USB-C port. The threads will be robotically inserted into the brain via skull holes bored by a laser that does not yet exist. The wires will collect signals in the brain, and people shall be able to type with just their minds. Their eventual aim is to connect those wires to a thought transmitter which tucks behind your ear like a hearing aid.
The flexible threads are thin sandwiches of a cellophane-like material that insulates conductive wires that link a series of tiny electrodes, or sensors.
They can be implanted in different locations of the brain and to different depths, depending on the application or experiment. Medical research and therapy may focus on different parts of the brain, such as centers for vision, speech, hearing, or motion.
The flexibility of the Neuralink threads would be an advance, said Terry Sejnowski, the Francis Crick Professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, in La Jolla, Calif.
Musk emphasized that the devices can be used by those seeking a memory boost or by paralysis victims, cancer patients, quadriplegics, or others with congenital disabilities. According to Neuralink’s leadership, the thin wires will be less likely to cause internal damage and able to transmit far more information than inflexible implants currently available which allow people with disabilities to interact more easily with computers. Once the system is perfected, Musk said in his announcement, the host brain would “achieve a symbiosis with artificial intelligence (AI).”
Up to ten units can be placed in a patient’s brain, says the company. The chips will connect to an Android or an iPhone app that the user can control. For a startup, a robot will be used to install the devices. Musk informed the audience that the robot, when operated by a surgeon, will drill 2-millimeter holes in a participant’s skull. The chip part of the device will plug the hole in the head.
“The interface to the chip is wireless, so there are no wires poking out of your head. That’s very, very important,” Musk added.
Neuralink is working towards a safe, mini interface that’s actually practical to have inside your head. The first person with spinal cord paralysis to receive any brain implant that allowed him to control a computer’s cursor was Matthew Nagle. In 2006, Mr. Nagle played Pong using only his mind; the basic movement required took him only four days to master. Since then, many other paralyzed people with brain implants have also moved robotic arms in labs or brought objects into focus, as part of scientific research. However, the experimental setup is so complex that the subjects can’t take it home yet.
Musk and his team showed off a miniature, dedicated computer chip which will convert the electrical noise from neurons into crisp digital signals. The chip does not require you to charge batteries every two hours. However, a wireless transmitter is still missing from Neuralink’s presentation.
In an experiment at a Neuralink research lab, the tech company showed a system connected to a lab rat reading information from 1,500 electrodes — 15 times better than current systems embedded in humans. That’s enough for medical applications or scientific research. However, independent scientists warned that results from laboratory animals might not interpret into human success and that human trials would definitely be required to determine the revolutionary technology’s promise.
Recently, the most advanced data for animal studies has come from the Belgian company Imec and its Neuropixels technology, which has a device capable of gathering data from thousands of separate brains cells at once. It’s challenging to predict how long an implant would last. It is expected that thin, flexible electrodes could last longer and cause less damage, dependability is a severe problem inside the brain, and electrodes may cause tissue damage called gliosis.
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One of Neuralink’s unique techniques is that it places flexible threads of electrodes in nearness to neurons. Neuralink said it developed a neurosurgery robot that automatically inserts the fine electrode threads into the brain at precise locations, avoiding blood vessels, at a rate of six per minute. However, the defense funding agency, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) spilt the beans, informing us that they had funded the initial idea of the sewing robot that Neuralink presented as its own idea.
In the past ten years or more, the Pentagon has financed research both to develop robotic control systems that would permit brain control of prosthetic devices and for basic brain sciences. Researchers with funding from the DARPA already have been able to create interfaces allowing quadriplegics to independently manipulate robot arms to perform manual tasks like drinking.
The Pentagon has backed a variety of techniques, including approaches that use light rather than embedded electrodes to capture data.
It is debatable how successful this vision would be. Such grand and wild claims are easy to make yet difficult to bring to reality. It is no secret that Musk’s ventures are still at early stages, whether it is Tesla or SpaceX. They are passing through their own hard times and bumpy roads. Tesla reportedly has problems with talent retention and production schedules. For SpaceX, there are some discouraging rocket explosions. When the company claims that it would open up a human brain, the stakes are very high. Musk, in Neuralink’s debut, readily accepted that the company was not yet ready to show the public much of anything, but that he and his company’s president, Max Hodak, were stepping forward in hopes of recruiting new talented employees. Musk also revealed something Hodak reportedly wasn’t expecting to tell the world: Neuralink’s devices have already allowed at least one monkey to interact with a computer mentally.
A great deal of caution needs to be exercised because of the huge ethical and safety concerns in testing treatments on human subjects.