Table of Contents

An Overview-

See radar with superhuman vision. Discover the nature of consciousness. Cure blindness, paralysis, deafness, and mental illness. Those are just a few of the applications that Elon Musk and employees at his four-year-old neuroscience company, Neuralink, believe electronic brain-computer interfaces will one day bring about. None of these advances is close at hand, and some are unlikely to ever come about. But in a product update streamed over YouTube on Friday, Musk, also the founder of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, joined staffers wearing black masks to discuss the company’s work toward an affordable, reliable brain implant that Musk believes billions of consumers will clamor for in the future.

Musk cofounded Neuralink in 2016, and the company remained under the radar the Wall Street Journal, in 2017, broke the news that he had established the company to merge computers with human brains.

Musk explained that over the past year the company has dramatically simplified the wearable device. The previous design consisted of a bean-shaped device that would sit behind the ear.

“It was complex, and you still wouldn’t look totally normal; you would have a thing behind your ear,” he said about the old design. “So we’ve simplified this to something that is about the size of a large coin, and it goes in your skull.”

The in-brain device could enable humans with neurological conditions to control technology, such as phones or computers, with their thoughts.

The Neuralink has been simplified from a device behind the ear to one on top of the skull

The current prototype – referred to as version 0.9 – measures at 23 millimetres by eight millimetres, and has 1024 electrode threads attached to it that are implanted into the brain. It is designed to replace a coin-sized portion of skull and sit flush so it would be physically unnoticeable. It would be inductively charged, the same way you would wirelessly charge a smartwatch or a phone.

“It’s kind of like a FitBit in your skull, with tiny wires,” said Musk.

The concept isn’t new as the scientists have already created devices capable of both interpreting brain activity and stimulating the neurons in the brain. A memorable demonstration of the technology was in 2012 when paralyzed patients were able to control a robotic arm. However, Elon Musk doesn’t want to stick with what is already possible. He said, in classic Muskian style, that apart from treating neural conditions such as Parkinson’s, he hopes that Neuralink could one day facilitate a symbiosis between humans and AI.

Building on that work, Neuralink says it hopes to further develop such brain-computer interfaces (or BCIs) to the point where one can be installed in a doctor’s office in under an hour. “This actually does work,” Musk said of people who have controlled computers with brain signals. “It’s just not something the average person can use effectively.”

Surgical Robots-

Designed by US tech company, Woke Studios, the surgical robot is programmed to insert the neural threads safely into the brain.

The robot would be able to insert the link in under an hour without general anaesthesia, with the patient able to leave hospital on the same day.

“We ultimately want this robot to do essentially the entire surgery – so everything from incision, removing the skull, inserting electrodes, placing the device and then closing things up,” said Musk during the live event. “We want to have a fully automated system.”

The robot has been used to insert the implant into a number of pigs that are being used to test the device.

Woke Studios designed the robot that inserts the devices

As Woke Studios explained, the team wanted to design the machine to suit its clinical setting, while still comforting patients and expressing the futuristic nature of the technology.

Comprised of three main elements – the head, the body and the base – the eight-foot-tall robot features a rounded form with soft edges, similar to other, less invasive, medical machines in a bid to give as much of a friendly-feeling as possible.

While the majority of the robot is coloured in white, for sterility purposes, the inner surface of the head has been given a light, mint green colour to provide visual comfort.

Designed with zero room for error, the head of the machine holds and guides the needle that performs the operation, and contains a large amount of cameras and sensors to capture the whole brain.

The asymmetric body features a car-like curvature, and provides the mechanics for controlled movement. This part of the robot, which moves in five axes, was designed to make the motion appear clean and effortless.

The body is attached to the base, which provides weighted support for the whole structure and holds the processing power to operate the entire machine.

Demonstration on Pigs-

In tweets leading up to the event, Musk had promised fans a mind-blowing demonstration of neurons firing inside a living brain—though he didn’t say of what species. Minutes into the livestream, assistants drew a black curtain to reveal three small pigs in fenced enclosures; these were the subjects of the company’s implant experiments.

Described as healthy and happy, one of the pigs was given an implant two months ago, while another pig has dual Neuralink implants, demonstrating that it is possible to have multiple chips in your head at one time.

A third pig has no implant. According to Musk, each of the animals are “indistinguishable” from each other.

Musk also showed a pig that previously had a chip inserted into its brain, but had since been removed, to show that the procedure is reversible without any serious side-effects.

Scepticism-

Throughout the event, Musk deftly avoided giving timelines or committing to schedules on questions such as when Neuralink’s system might be tested in human subjects.

As yet, four years after its formation, Neuralink has provided no evidence that it can (or has even tried to) treat depression, insomnia, or a dozen other diseases that Musk mentioned in a slide. One difficulty ahead of the company is perfecting microwires that can survive the corrosive context of a living brain for a decade. That problem alone could take years to solve.

To neuroscientists, the most intriguing development shown Friday may have been what Musk called the link, a silver-dollar-sized disk containing computer chips, which compresses and then wirelessly transmits signals recorded from the electrodes. The link is about as thick as the human skull, and Musk said it could plop neatly onto the surface of the brain through a drill hole that could then be sealed with superglue.

“I could have a Neuralink right now and you wouldn’t know it,” Musk said.

The link can be charged wirelessly via an induction coil, and Musk suggested that people in the future would plug in before they go to sleep to power up their implants. He thinks an implant also needs to be easy to install and remove, so that people can get new ones as technology improves. You wouldn’t want to be stuck with version 1.0 of a brain implant forever. Outdated neural hardware left behind in people’s bodies is a real problem already encountered by research subjects.

There are some ethical problems which may arise in a world where Neuralink could connect AI to people’s brains. The biggest concern is how one manages to actually protect information in that sort of interface. Also, Neuralink’s biggest hurdle comes along before it even tries to put AI into anyone’s brains. To get any of these devices into one’s brains is very risky. The idea of a healthy person doing that is troublesome. These however, do not rule out the possibility Neuralink will become a real, applicable technology. It can possibly happen in Elon Musk’s lifetime.   

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