Last week, light was shed on one of the most mysterious Musk projects: a computer chip connected to exceptionally thin fibre-like electrodes that will enable paralyzed people to move cursors and type words using their brain. These wires will be connected into a thought transmitter that is envisioned to be tucked behind the ear like a hearing aid. This will be the primary technicality of the Neuralink.
Neuralink was set up in 2016 by Elon Musk, who got interested in developing a device like the “neural lace” from the sci-fi novel series Culture. Headquartered in San Francisco, the company recruited several top neuroscientists from the best universities and has been secretive about its research, until recently. While the Neuralink is definitely not as advanced as the piece of technology it was inspired by, it definitely has the potential to be groundbreaking and might be the first step into what Musk calls “symbiosis with artificial intelligence”.
The idea itself is not unique. Research in this field has been going on for more than 15 years. Scientists have been able to implant electrodes into the brains of paralyzed individuals, which enabled them to move dexterous robotic appendages and cursors. But the experimental set-up is so complicated (including a fat wire that gets plugged into patients’ heads) the subjects can’t take it home. The main distinction that Neuralink brings is that it turns that bulky, expensive research project into a commodity.
The Next Big Thing In Neuroscience
Neuralink’s claim to fame are micron-width electrode threads that are implanted within the head of the person. Robots, which resemble sewing machines, will implant these threads into the skull which then pickup information from the neurons and send it wirelessly to the transmitter. These solve one problem but cause another. The thin, flexible thread is the first step into making brain-machine interfaces more compact and mobile: something current technology lacks. Current brain-computer interfaces, like the Utah Array, are comparatively much more massive than the Neuralink threads and also require cabled connection to an external machine, limiting movement. Musk’s vision is still in the works; the Neuralink system has not gone cable-free yet, with their latest testing on lab rats showing a USB-C port sticking out of the critter’s head, but there is hope for human testing to begin as early as 2020.
Moreover, the threads themselves uniquely solve the problem that plagued the other interfaces. The Neuralink thread is more compatible with the human brain: it does not easily degrade in the fluid environment. Their flexibility allows it to withstand potential impact caused to the head without injuring brain tissue. However, not all is perfect, as the very thinness and flexibility raises a question: if something does go wrong, how will it be removed?
Musk’s goal for the Neuralink has been clear from the start: to treat crippling diseases and ultimately, human enhancement. Several other interfaces have restored certain functioning to disabled subjects. The team plans to test their technology on humans with spinal cord paralysis and are actively trying to get approval to do the same. With this hope, it is very possible that those with mental illnesses or physical paralysis could return to a semblance of normal life in a few years’ time.
Concerns For The Future
Elon Musk has said that the eventual goal of Neuralink is human enhancement, citing that it is the only way for human beings to stay relevant in an age with AI. This raises some ethical concerns regarding Neuralink and brain-computer interfaces in general.
One, is it ethical to provide certain mental or physical advantages to perfectly-abled humans? Won’t this cause a disparity between the ones who have it and the ones who don’t? It is not clear what the end goals or possibilities of Neuralink are. While it might be instrumental in revolutionising the way we approach medicine and bioengineering, human enhancement is a scary possibility. If Neuralink could spawn an era of human beings able to attach a computer chip to make them stronger or smarter, traits that define us like our intelligence or strength, may not make much of a difference anymore. We also need to consider the people who can not afford the technology; they just won’t be able to compete with the rest.
Two, how secure is the information extracted from your brain? With data privacy being a hotbed of conflict now, is tapping into your brain in any way going to be secure? Companies like Google and Facebook are facing the heat for allegedly stealing user data. Implanting a device that could read your brain is very concerning, as you will never be able to know whether your personal information is being scanned or not.
Three, will the research into the field be ethical? Many consider it to be improper consent if patients with severe crippling diseases accept to be tested on out of desperation. Steps must be taken to ensure that the testing is completely voluntary without any influence.
The ethical considerations of scientific experimentation have existed since the days of Frankenstein, but with technology evolving at such a rapid rate, the time to answer these questions will come sooner rather than later.