Elon Musk has never been afraid to push the envelope when working towards a more innovative future, as his business ventures, which include autonomous electric cars and self-landing rockets, show. One of Musk's latest projects involves a company called Neuralink. It wants to help people interact with computers by using their minds.
This concept as a whole is not new. Modern medicine has been innovating with equipment called brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) to help people with neurological disorders since the turn of the century. For example, a paralyzed person can use a BMI to move a mouse cursor or a robotic arm. Such options let them retain more independence.
Elon Musk founded Neuralink in July 2016. His original goal was to connect people's brains to computers. And, he won't restrict the technology to people for whom it's medically necessary. According to a Washington Post article, Neuralink’s head neurosurgeon Matt MacDougall said the company’s long-term goal is to offer its brain technology as an elective procedure. The same source mentioned how Musk sees the technology as a medical necessity as well as something that stops humans from getting “left behind” as artificial intelligence (AI) becomes more prominent in society.
An academic paper (and a livestream) published so far
Musk's technology is still in the early stages, but it is starting to take shape. Neuralink representatives published an academic paper on bioRxiv. Their document outlines some of the intentions for the technology and what the company has done so far. However, bioRxiv is not peer-reviewed.
The paper describes the steps taken to create a scalable, high-bandwidth BMI with electrodes arranged in arrays called "threads." Each array potentially contains more than 3,000 electrodes distributed across nearly 100 threads.
The electrode array is housed inside a small, implantable device, and the paper suggests that it could be possible to insert an individual thread into a region of the brain with micron precision. Neuralink, however, has not successfully demonstrated that approach in humans. During a recent Neuralink livestream, though, Musk revealed during a Q&A that the technology let a monkey control a computer with its brain.
Even though there is a lot of progress left to make, Neuralink's technology could give scientists more options for learning about the brain, especially since our understanding of how the brain’s structures relate to behavior is still in its infancy.
What's new about Neuralink's tech?
As mentioned earlier, what Neuralink wants to achieve does not represent the first step in BMI implants. However, it offers some new ideas that could combine to make significant progress in this type of brain tech. Neuralink's implant stands out from previous efforts undertaken elsewhere for several reasons:
- Neuralink's interface aims to be a safer and smaller option than some previously available BMI technology. Current options are too cumbersome for everyday use and remain mostly confined to labs. What Neuralink comes up with could make the tech more accessible to a larger target audience that could benefit from it.
- Although Neuralink's prototype doesn't have a wireless transmitter, it offers a low-power chip that doesn't require frequent battery changes. That aspect could make it more user-friendly.
- Neuralink also hopes to use a "sewing robot" to insert the electrodes into the brain in the desired locations or at particular depths using a fine needle that can place up to six electrode threads per minute. If successful, this approach could be faster and more precise than current methods. But, there are issues to overcome concerning whether the thin, flexible electrodes will be durable enough once placed. That's especially because the brain's environment destroys many kinds of plastics.
Future plans for the company?
Neuralink's research paper also mentions that the company has built two prototypes. Each one is capable of recording the brain's activity across multiple regions and layers of the cortex. One features 1,536 recording channels, while the other has 3,072.
During the livestreamed Neuralink presentation, the company's president, Max Hodak, mentioned that it would test its technology next year on five paralyzed people to see if they can use it to move a mouse cursor and type with their brains. So far, Neuralink has only been tested on rats.
The planned experiment with paralyzed patients is not revolutionary, and similar ones have occurred since the 2000s. Plus, the small size of Neuralink's sample may not accurately represent the pros and cons of the technology. The research community is nevertheless waiting with anticipation for the outcomes of the company’s planned human trials.
Neuralink's technology shows promise for facilitating brain implant progress. But it's too soon to say for sure the extent of the impact it will have.
One of the strangest parts of Neuralink's vision is that it intends for everyone to have access to an implant— not just people with neurological disorders. Eventually, Musk hopes it will be as easy for people to get one as it is for them to have vision correction surgery today.
It's not clear if this idea will have widespread appeal. Would people be willing to go through what is, let’s not forget, brain surgery to control a computer differently? How much might it cost to do so? What about the recovery time?
Furthermore, for people who have a medical reason to get a Neuralink implant, how different would the BMI be compared to what already exists or what other groups are also developing?
A lot of questions are still unanswered, but that should change as Neuralink's technology advances. For now, Musk and Neuralink have raised awareness of BMI implants, captured headlines, and made people curious about what’s possible.