What if you could plug your brain directly into the internet? Imagine gaming, watching videos, or devouring whole books instantly without needing a screen. That’s the bold new vision being dreamed up at the San Francisco offices of Neuralink.
billionaire polymath Elon Musk’s controversial new venture. But what is Neuralink, how does it work, and what are the real-world implications of this mental sci-fi fantasy? Join us today as we put on our thinking caps and learn the secrets of Elon Musk’s new mind-control device.
The first thing you should know is that tech colossus Elon Musk is terrified about the rise of AI or artificial intelligence.‘ AI is overlooked by very smart people,’ he’s said before.
That’s because, in his view ‘…very smart people do not think a computer can ever be as smart as they are. ‘This is hubris, and false.’
Musk’s chief worry is that left unchecked, Artificial Intelligence will rapidly evolve beyond humanity’s ability to manage and regulate it. Then, he frets, at some unknowable moment, human beings will become a mere nuisance to it. And it will dispose of us without hesitation or remorse.
Musk’s plan for tackling this existential threat is two-fold. In 2015 he founded OpenAI.
A non-profit consultancy dedicated to researching AI and steering the wise legislative oversight he feels the industry so desperately needs.
And in 2016, he also founded Neuralink.
In Musk’s eyes, it isn’t humanity’s raw intellectual horsepower hobbling our ability to take on the robot master race. The human mind is plenty nimble enough to get by. Instead,
the problem is what Musk colorfully refers to as our human bandwidth.
Whether you’re reading a Wikipedia article or listening to some seductively urbane narrator on a YouTube video, information is entering your brain at the leisurely pace of about three to five words per second. That’s pretty lame, from a bandwidth point of view. Computers, of course, can digest entire bookshelves in a fraction of that time, which puts mankind at a very obvious disadvantage.
Enter Neuralink, which plans to beef up our bandwidth with a little help from a discreet, coin-sized intracranial device. And to make that happen,
Neuralink needs to learn how to read minds.
Here’s how it works. Every time your brain performs a function, nerve cells called neurons chatter to each other across connections known as synapses. Everything your brain does, from lifting your right hand to processing all words involves the firing of specific synapses, from specific neurons.
Neuralink’s nifty gizmo incorporates over a thousand minuscule electrodes, each just one-tenth of the width of a human hair. These electrodes splay out into your brain tissue, passing near enough to those chatty neurons to overhear their activity.
This activity is beamed directly to an external device, which will most likely be fitted over your ear. From there, sophisticated algorithms interpret exactly what you are thinking at any given moment.
Here’s the ambitious bit. Musk and his team reckon they can also send traffic the other way, broadcasting information back into your brain through the intracranial device. To date the company has set itself relatively modest goals, monitoring and interpreting brain activity in non-human mammals. Take Gertrude, the pig, who was implanted with a Neuralink device to help researchers track which neurons fired whenever her snout was lovingly caressed.
More famously, Pager the monkey recently went viral after Nerualink posted a video of him successfully playing the retro video game Pong, using only the power of his adorable monkey mind. Pager started the experiment by playing Pong the old-fashioned way with a regular joystick.
Neuralink studied which neurons fired whenever Pager moved the joystick up, and which fired when the joystick moved down. From there, it was comparatively simple for the Neuralink team to read those firing synapses and broadcast that info from Pager’s mind directly to the console in real-time, without a joystick. Pretty cool.
Neuralink’s next trick is to install its intracranial device into a paraplegic human test subject. It’s hoped this technology might enable those suffering from paralysis to access the internet without needing their fingers, or clumsy voice controls. Beyond that, says Musk, it could help tackle other problems, from addiction to blindness.
If this all sounds like some utopian sci-fi plot – Neuralink was supposedly
inspired after Musk read a series of Iain M Banks novels called The Culture – just wait until you hear how it gets put in your skull.
Those minuscule filaments we mentioned earlier are much too fiddly for a regular human doctor to be trusted with.
So Neuralink has developed a $20 million robotic neurosurgeon to install those impossibly tiny filaments into your noggin, in a manner described as akin to that of a sewing machine. Naturally, it’s important the robot surgeon manages this without damaging anything important or causing unnecessary blood loss. This means the company has some high regulatory hurdles to clear before going to market.
As Musk himself has put it, ‘Getting FDA approval for implantable devices of any kind is quite difficult… this will be a slow process.’
The benefits of Neuralink would be striking. Aside from trivial applications,
like online shopping or checking the football scores in the privacy of your mind, the power to access the entire internet at will could spark a revolution in human creativity.
Still, critics have their doubts. For starters, artificial implants anywhere in the body can and do frequently cause unforeseen rejection reactions. That’s probably not something you want inside your skull. Neuralink engineers also need to make sure their device, and especially those wee filaments, is capable of resisting corrosion in the damp, briny intracranial cavity.
There’s also the very real threat of malfunction, or computer viruses, or even malicious hackers. Nobody wants to deal with a phishing scam happening in the confines of their skull. Not to mention the labyrinthine moral and ethical implications inherent in this technology,
quite apart from the whole animal testing thing. If a device can read your thoughts, translate and broadcast them to another Neuralink device, isn’t that telepathy? How will this affect society,
and how we live and interact with each other? What does consent mean in this unprecedented framework?
Musk, for his part, is characteristically upbeat about Neuralink’s potential to enhance our lives, breezily referring to his new brainchild as a ‘Fitbit for the skull’. He’s even said human trials might be on the horizon as early as the tail end of 2021 – but bear in mind he has a reputation for mad exaggerated timescales.
Certainly, Musk’s almost limitless financial resources are attracting top neuroscience talent to the team, and reports from the firm suggest
no piece of equipment is too expensive to meet the CEO’s ambitious deadlines.
After all, if we’re going to beat the machines, maybe quick thinking is the only way.
What do you think? Are you excited to go online without needing a cumbersome screen?
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