September 1st, 2020 by Carolyn Fortuna
Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, seeks to merge human brains with AI. In a live YouTube presentation on Friday, he said that his brain-to-computer interface company Neuralink is on the brink of letting people achieve what he calls “AI symbiosis,” in which the human brain will merge with an artificial intelligence.
“Such that the future of the world is controlled by the combined will of the people of Earth — I think that that’s obviously gonna be the future that we want,” he envisioned. Musk sees the Neuralink brain interface as a way toward such equity.
Musk’s Neuralink is a series of thin, flexible wires which are covered in electrodes to pick up brain activity. Dr. Robert Kirsch, chairman of biomedical engineering at Case Western Reserve University, explains in a New York Times piece that Elon Musk’s Neuralink is probably the best brain-sensing tech in development. It requires surgery, he acknowledges, but its thin and flexible nature can adjust to the topography of the brain, possibly making it less caustic.
The hairlike filaments, each of which contains multiple sensors, sink into brain tissue, which have the potential to capture more data than flatter arrays that sit at the brain’s surface. The tiny computer chip would be sewn robotically under local anesthesia in one hour into a human brain on a network of superfine electrode-studded wires about 5 microns thick each (20 times thinner than a human hair). The chip would read and write brain activity — sensing signals in the brain, translating them into motor controls, and interfacing with deficient parts of the human body like limbs.
Theoretically, such a brain-computer interface could reveal entirely new methods for humans to communicate with different parts of the human body. It’s “like a Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires,” Musk said. The device can pair with a smartphone app over Bluetooth Low Energy, he added.
His Neuralink brain insert is the latest in brain-machine interfaces that have been part of research studies since 2006. Small devices have electronically stimulated nerves and brain areas to treat hearing loss and Parkinson’s disease.
The Neuralink device hasn’t been tested in humans yet; however, the US Food and Drug Administration has designated it a breakthrough device, which allows them to obtain feedback throughout the development process.
Musk’s Neuralink Brain Insert Has Many Possibilities
Musk founded Neuralink in 2016. Then a 2019 media event announced what was titled the N1 Implant concept. This August 28, 2020 live demonstration featured the newest research, in which the brain activity of a pig exposed the results of a newly designed surgically implanted chip that transmitted data wirelessly.
“We have a healthy and happy pig, initially shy but obviously high energy and, you know, kind of loving life, and she’s had the implant for two months,” Musk said of Gertrude the pig during the live YouTube demonstration.
Rejection of the device — the brain automatically fights off foreign matter as a defense mechanism — is but one of many obstacles on the road to Neuralink implementation. Another is that healthy humans will have to agree to be subjects in the trials, which will require brain surgery to place the implant. The surgery would be relatively bloodless, according to Musk, as robots wouldn’t damage blood vessels.
The first clinical trials will be in a small number of patients with severe spinal cord injuries, to make sure it functions as anticipated and is safe for the volunteers. In the meantime, Musk announced that the company is looking to recruit robotics, electrical, and software engineers to develop the device and refine the surgical procedure for the implementation.
Musk said the device would be “quite expensive” when it first launches, but the goal is to reduce costs to about a few thousand dollars — “similar to Lasik,” he said.
Future Will Be Controlled By “Combined Will Of The People Of Earth”
Musk forecast that the Neuralink brain technology could one day cure neurological conditions and allow people with paralysis to control a computer mouse. It could alleviate memory loss, moderate strokes, or mitigate addiction. The technology could monitor a user’s health and warn them if they’re having a heart attack, enable superhuman vision, or even give people telepathy. (Well, the latter 2 aren’t really part of the near future plan…)
A new and fascinating television series on Amazon Video is called Upload. It’s a show in which a person who is dying can be uploaded to a “digital afterlife program” that has been created and is managed by a megacorporation. The Neuralink conversations did contain a bit of that feel, especially when Musk envisioned people using Neuralink to connect to their own digital AI incarnations.
But always visionary, Musk also outlined how “the future is controlled by the combined will of the people of Earth.” Continuing a community thread that he’s touched on before, Musk said, “It’s going to be important from an existential threat perspective to achieve a good AI symbiosis.” Musk has dabbled with different definitions of freedom and community in the past, always creating new spaces for innovation.
Acknowledging that the Q&A session was beginning to sound like a Black Mirror episode, he concurred that, one day, humans will be able to back up and restore memories. “The future is going to be weird,” Musk said, discussing sci-fi uses of Neuralink. “In the future you will be able to save and replay memories,” he said. “You could basically store your memories as a backup and restore the memories. You could potentially download them into a new body or into a robot body.”
Neuralink has raised more than $150 million in funding, including $100 million from Musk himself. The company employs roughly 100 people but could soon expand to 10,000, Musk said at the event.
Sure, some of the claims that Musk made about Neuralink’s future application were “outsized,” as the Guardian notes: be used to summon a Tesla, play video games, or allow a person with a severed spinal cord to walk again.
Also, Musk did not present any scientific data to support his claims about the pigs or the devices. Since the Neuralink launch event last year, Musk and Neuralink have published one scientific paper, in the Journal of Medical Internet Research in October.
“Everyone in the field would be very impressed if they actually showed data from a device implanted in a human,” Graeme Moffat, a University of Toronto neuroscience research fellow, told the Guardian.
Musk is the hands-down genius of our times. If anyone can bring this amazing idea to fruition, it’s him.
Here’s the August 28, 2020 demonstration in full, in case you’d like to see it for yourself.
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