Elon Musk's Neuralink is now officially approved for human trials. The company hopes the device will help people with disabilities control technologies using neural signals.
Neuralink is a device that can be surgically inserted into the brain using robotics by neurosurgeons.
In this blog, we’ll go into some more details about what Neuralink is and how it works, as well as some use cases and concerns for the future.
How Does Neuralink Work?
When Neo needed to learn martial arts in The Matrix, he just loaded a computer program into his brain.
Now Neuralink can’t do this – yet, but at least the hope is that users will be able to control basic devices like phones, computers, or type out thoughts.
Our brains send out information to different parts of the body using neurons; these neurons in the brain connect with each other to form a network and communicate using signals called neurotransmitters.
This reaction generates an electric field; this is where Neuralink comes in. Electrical fields in the brain can be recorded with electrodes. The signal can be converted into an algorithm that a machine can read.
This way Neuralink can read what we are thinking and allow us to talk to machines without opening our mouths. We will also be able to learn new skills using a smartphone app.
Neuralink uses Bluetooth to send instructions, but that may change in the future.
Are They Just Gonna Cut Open Our Brains?
Getting this process to work requires complex surgery. It’s so complex that surgeons are using robots just to get it done right.
The Neuralink team wants the procedure to take less than an hour, so a patient will be able to leave the hospital on the same day.
Ideally, the procedure would go like this:
A coin-sized piece of the skull is removed. A robot inserts hair-thin electrodes into the brain. The robot replaces the portion of the skull that was removed with the new Neuralink.
There is also a portion of Neuralink that would live outside our brain. Musk and his team understand how annoying software updates can be, so they developed an external piece.
It wouldn’t be ideal to have to run a neurosurgeon any time there is an update, so the software is housed on a wearable behind the ear – The Link.
The Link houses the software as well as the battery. All software updates happen through the device, and it can be charged when the battery is low.
What Neuralink Can Be
The brain implant is designed to help paraplegics with simple tasks like using an iPhone, typing words, and making mouse clicks on a computer without physical movement.
It could be used to restore the memory, speech, and movement of a paralyzed person.
Elon Musk believes that the technology can be used to help some regain eyesight even if they have lost their optic nerve or even treat epilepsy.
In principle, Neuralink will be able to “fix anything wrong with the brain.”
The immediate goals are to offer tools for paralyzed patients to make lives easier. In the future, the Neuralink team would love to expand this for everyday use.
So far, there has been some moderate success. The chip has been successfully tested in pigs and monkeys.
A monkey was able to control a cursor on a computer screen through Neuralink, and telepathically play video games.
What Neuralink Is Right Now
Right now, technology is far from a sure thing. Most of the monkeys experimented on have died.
One primate developed a bloody skin infection and had to be put down.
Another was discovered missing fingers and toes, “possibly from self-mutilation or some other unspecified trauma,” and had to be put down.
A third began uncontrollably vomiting after surgery, and days later collapsed from fatigue. An autopsy revealed the animal suffered from a brain hemorrhage.
The co-founder of the company left for unspecified reasons.
Critics of the company say they lack innovation are copying other researchers’ work. Monkeys with brain implants aren’t exactly brand-new technology.
Miguel Nicolelis says Neuralink is taking credit for work he and his team started back in 2014.
Nicolelis also says Neuralink is taking credit for the work he and other researchers have conducted for decades.
Is This All a “Black Mirror” Episode?
It’s reasonable to be concerned if Neuralink will be used for good purposes, or if there is something larger at play.
It’s not clear whether Neuralink’s program benefits people with disabilities, or whether it’s really an excuse to explore transhumanism — the merging of robots with humans.
If tech like this becomes normal, at what point does it become mandatory for future generations?
How secure is the data in our heads, and what is Neuralink doing to keep it secure?
Once anything is connected to the Internet, there is always a chance it could be compromised. Imagine the different forms of hacking that could take place when hackers have a direct line to the minds of others.
Would this be the dawn of Cognitive Law? A legal regime that pertains exclusively to what’s in the mind?
There are several fields at the intersection of law, philosophy, technology, and society.
We are going to need answers to these complex questions as soon as possible.
If we don’t, they might be answered for us.