Climb mountains without fear. Let a symphony play in your head. Superhuman eyesight with radar technology. Explore the nature of the unconscious. Cure blindness, paralysis, deafness and mental illness … These are just a few of the applications that Elon Musk and the staff of his four-year-old neuroscientific start-up Neuralink believe that so-called brain-computer interfaces will one day make them possible .
None of them are even remotely realized and some of them will probably never be the case. But in a “Product Update” event that was streamed live on YouTube at the end of August, Musk – otherwise known as the founder of SpaceX and Tesla – joined his black masked team to discuss the shared vision. Affordable, reliable brain implants, which Musk believes billions of users will crave for in the future, are the goal. “In many ways,” said Musk, “it’s kind of a Fitbit in the skull, but with lots of little wires.”
Although the online event was announced as a product launch, there is still nothing from Neuralink that could be used or bought (which is probably better because most of the company’s medical claims remain very speculative). What is actually being worked on, however, is a super-dense electrode technology that is currently being tested in animal experiments.
Artificial enhancement of human capabilities
The Neuralink people aren’t the first to believe that brain implants can enhance or restore human capabilities. Researchers began inserting probes into the brains of paralyzed people in the late 1990s to show that appropriate nerve signals could be used to move robotic arms or computer cursors. And mice with visual impairments can actually perceive infrared radiation, so they get a wider sense of it.
Neuralink wants to build on this work to develop new brain-computer interfaces (BCIs for short). In the end, the installation should take less than an hour to see the doctor. “It really works,” Musk said of people who controlled computers with brain signals. “It’s just not something the average person could use effectively.” When asked when Neuralink’s system could be tested on humans, Musk cleverly avoided giving mandatory or even vague times.
Four years since it was founded, Neuralink has not provided evidence that they are able (or even bothered to treat) depression, insomnia, or a dozen other illnesses that Musk names on one of his presentation slides. One challenge the company faces is perfecting microwires so that they can survive a decade in the “corrosive” environment of the living brain. That alone could take years.
Piggy in the matrix
Instead, the main purpose of the presentation was to create excitement, get engineers into the company (which already employs around 100 people), and build the kind of fanbase that has fueled the success of Musk’s other companies – and has been helpful in doing so Shoot the share price of the electric car maker Tesla into the stratosphere.
In tweets that preceded the event, Musk promised his fans a spectacular display of neurons firing within a living brain – although he did not reveal which species it was. The live stream was going for a few minutes when assistants pulled a black curtain aside and three small pigs in a fenced-in enclosure came to light: They were the participants in the experiment.
One of the pigs had an implant in its brain, and hidden speakers briefly let out a ring that Musk said was a reproduction of the animal’s nerve cells firing in real time. For those who expected a “matrix in the matrix”, as Musk had suggested on Twitter, the sweet four-legged interlude will have been rather disappointing. This was nothing new to neuroscientists anyway. The buzzing and crackling of electrical impulses picked up from animal (and some human) brains has been heard in their laboratories for many years.
In the neuro sewing machine
A year ago Neuralink presented a sewing machine robot that should be able to build thousands of ultra-fine electrodes into the brain of a rodent. These probes measure electrical signals emanating from neurons. The speed and pattern of these signals form the basis for movement, thoughts and the ability to recall memories. On the new livestream, Musk appeared next to an updated prototype of the sewing robot encased in a sleek, white plastic helmet.
Musk believes that one day billions of free will consumers will one day stick their heads into such a surgical device to indulge in an automated saw that cuts away a circular portion of the bone. Then comes a robot that threads electronics into the brain. The futuristic housing of the device was created by the industrial design company Woke Studio in Vancouver. The chief designer, Afshin Mehin, said he wanted to create something “clean, modern”, something “that feels friendly”. However, this is a voluntary brain operation that will involve inevitable risks.
For neuroscientists, the most startling development shown on the Neuralink stream was being something Musk calls “the link”. It is a coin-sized disc with computer chips that compresses electrode signals and transmits them wirelessly. This link is about the thickness of a human skull. Musk said it could be dropped neatly onto the surface of the brain through a drilled hole that could be re-sealed with superglue. “I could have a neural link in me right now and they wouldn’t know,” says Musk.
Induction into the brain
The Link can be charged wirelessly via induction, and Musk suggested that in the future, people would plug in their power adapter to power their implants before they go to sleep. He believes that an implant must be easy to install and remove so that the technology can be easily exchanged once it has improved. Because: You don’t want to be stuck with the 1.0 version of your brain implant forever. Outdated neural hardware is actually a problem that research must address right now.
The implant that Neuralink is testing in pigs has 1000 channels and will likely read a similar number of neurons. Musk explains it as his goal to increase this value by a factor of “100, then 1000, then 10000” in order to be able to read the brain more completely.
Such exponential goals are technology-centric and do not necessarily have to do with selected medical needs. Even if Musk claims that implants can cure “paralysis, blindness and hearing problems”, the treatment of these diseases usually does not lack ten times the number of electrodes, but rather specialist knowledge of the causes of the electrochemical imbalance that causes depression, for example. Despite the long list of medical uses Musk presented, Neuralink was not ready to commit to any of them.
There is a lack of clinical studies
The company also didn’t announce any plans to start a clinical trial during the event – which came as a surprise to anyone who thought it was the next logical step. At least one neurosurgeon who works with Musk’s company, Matthew MacDougall, said the company was considering testing the implants on people who were paralyzed – so they could type on computers or form words, for example. Musk went further: “I think in the long run it will be possible to restore the entire musculoskeletal system.”
It is not clear how serious the company is about treating diseases. Musk continually diverged from medicine in his lecture, going back to the futuristic notion of a “device for the general public,” which he called “overall” the company’s primary goal.
The company boss believes that people should connect directly to computers so that they are not left behind by artificial intelligence. “As a species, figuring out how to coexist with advanced AI by achieving AI symbiosis is important,” he said. “So that the future of the world is controlled by a common will of the people on earth. That could be the most important thing a device like this achieves.” Unfortunately, Musk did not say how brain implants would create such a collective electronic consciousness of our planet. Maybe with the next update.