ELON MUSK HAS a talent for describing the most comforting kind of crazy-ass futures. His vision—Mars rockets! Underground electric robot cars!—sells itself as the world of tomorrow, today. But it’s actually the science fiction of yesterday, ripped from the pages of Science Wonder Stories.
It’s lovely that someone is finally building yesterday’s pew-pew science fiction priorities. That’s especially true of the latest Muskery, presented last week: a new iteration of Neuralink, a wireless implant that could someday give human brains a direct interface to digital devices. Once the company gets past the mere formalities of human testing and government approval and convinces people to pay for the privilege of having a robot surgeon stitch 1,064 wires into their brains, we’re halfway to Borgtown, babies.
To help paralyzed people control devices and empower people with brain disorders to enrich their lives, Elon Musk-led startup Neuralink has revealed tiny brain “threads” in a chip that is long-lasting, usable at home, and has the potential to replace cumbersome devices currently used as brain-machine interfaces.
The technology has a module that sits outside the head and wirelessly receives information from “threads” embedded in the brain.
Controlled by an iPhone app, the chip called “N1 sensor” with just a USB port coming out can have as many as 3,072 electrodes per array distributed across 96 “threads” – each “thread” smaller than the tiniest human hair.
The chip which will be wireless in the future can read, transmit high-volume data and amplify signals from the brain. The aim is to drill four 8mm holes into patients’ skulls and insert the “threads” each of the size between 4 and 6 micrometre — about one-third the diameter of a human hair.
Currently, there is a robot to do the brain surgery which, according to a research paper released by Neuralink, has performed surgeries on animals and successfully placed the “threads”.
“This has the potential to solve several brain-related diseases. The idea is to understand and treat brain disorders, preserve and enhance your own brain and create a well-aligned future,”
Elon Musk’s high-profile foray into connecting brains to computers, a 2-year-old company called Neuralink, detailed its ambitions and unveiled some initial results at a live-streamed event yesterday before an invitation-only crowd at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. With thousands watching online, Musk, the entrepreneur behind Tesla and SpaceX, described the firm’s goal of using tiny electrodes implanted in the brain to “cure important diseases” and “achieve a symbiosis with artificial intelligence.”
Details about those planned applications remain sparse, but Neuralink briefly presented some of its first rodent data from ultrasmall electrodes at the event. And in a seemingly spontaneous answer to a question, Musk revealed that the company has already used its device to allow a monkey to control a computer with its brain. The company aims to implant electrodes into a person paralyzed by spinal cord injury by the end of 2020, he added—and Neuralink’s head neurosurgeon, Matthew MacDougall of California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, made a presentation wearing scrubs. But the firm will need clearance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to perform such an experiment in the United States.
About that: Neuroscientists who study the human brain and work with electrodes and neurons, the specialized cells that comprise our think-meat, are pretty psyched—hah!—about Musk’s tech. It looks like a real leap forward for research. But as for the mind-reading, memory-downloading telepathy stuff? It’s possible that Elon has made one of the classic mistakes of a would-be technomancer. The first, of course, is never to get involved in a land war on Endor. But the second is, don’t confuse metaphors for science.
Neuralink’s technology, to be clear, looks awesome. It’s a brain implant the size of four dollar coins with more than 1,000 electrodes that will (someday) allow a person to wirelessly send neuroelectrical activity to anything digital, from prosthetic arms to Tesla autopilots to memory-recording cloud servers.
The reason that excites neuroscientists is that right now their tools are relatively crude. The standard is the “Utah array,” a single chip with 64 electrodes on it. Just putting it in or taking it out can damage the tissue around it, and it’s not good at isolating single neurons or covering a large area. “It’s very cumbersome. Typically, they can’t take the thing home. It requires two trained engineers and a PhD and all of that,” says Christof Koch, chief scientist at the Allen Institute for Brain Science. “Musk now has a device that’s at least 10 times better. It’s at least 1,000 channels and it’s all streaming, so that’s pretty cool, right?”
The answer is yes. At the Neuralink presentation, Musk said that his prototype included sensors for motion, temperature, and pressure and 1,024 thin, flexible wires to pick up the electrical signals neurons put out while they’re neuron-ing. In a living and seemingly normal pig that Neuralink handlers brought to the demo, the device was nestled invisibly below the scalp and transmitted wireless, real-time signals, powered by an inductively charged battery that should last a full day.
But Musk also said that in the further future, a Neuralink would be able to record and replay memories, even save them to an external drive and download them into a robot body. He said people with implants would be capable of telepathy—not just sending and receiving words, but actual concepts and images. (“Words are a very low data rate,” Musk said. “We can have far better communication, because we can convey the actual thoughts.”)
A brain is not a hard drive. Memory is not a video. Neuroelectrical signals emitted during the act of remembering are not themselves memories. Recording and saving those signals for later playback is not the same as uploading your consciousness. “This idea, it really comes from digital computers that these things are the same. You flip the orientation of a magnetic particle and you’ve changed a memory, and you do that by activating a transistor,” Frank says. “I think this is, if you’ll forgive me, a failure of knowledge of biology.”
That science isn’t finished yet. Neither were reusable rockets before SpaceX, or high-quality electric cars before Tesla. But neither of those advances required anyone to get neurosurgery to be in the first aftermarket test group.
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