Elon Musk has bold plans for the future. He’s already working on sending humans to Mars with SpaceX and planning on building extensive tunnels under Los Angeles to revolutionise transport with The Boring Company. Now he is also developing a way to merge your brain with a computer with his startup Neuralink.
At an event in San Francisco, the Neuralink team revealed it has been developing a brain-computer interface (BCI) made of thin, thread-like implants. This could one day work with (or, more specifically, within) humans, allowing us to control technology with our thoughts.
Essential reading: I tried to become a darts pro by zapping my brain
However, it’s still early days. Neuralink needs FDA approval to move from animal to human trials and many critics are concerned the procedure may be too invasive – as well as an ethical minefield.
But how does it all work and what could it mean for the future of how our brains interact with tech in the future? We try to break that all down below.
Neuralink: What is it?
Elon Musk’s startup Neuralink is working on an implantable, wireless device that can be embedded within your brain. This may sound bizarre, but it isn’t new. Similar devices already exist and are currently being used in medical settings, including to treat Alzheimer’s.
But the technology Neuralink proposes to ‘implant’ in your brain, and the process it’ll use to do it, takes a different approach. The team says it’s designed ultra-thin and flexible electrode ‘threads’, which are much smaller than a human hair, and contain 192 electrodes each. These threads are injected into the brain where they can detect neuron activity.
A neurosurgical robot has been designed to insert the threads, like a “sewing machine” deep within the brain tissue. Musk said the aim is to, one day, make the process as “simple and automated” as laser eye surgery.
The threads wirelessly connect to a device called the Link, which is a small, wearable computer worn behind the ear that looks a little like a hearing aid. The Link then connects to a smartphone app via Bluetooth and handles all updates so the brain itself doesn’t need to be constantly tinkered with.
Once everything is in place, the threads within the brain and the Link worn externally work together to create a high-bandwidth brain-computer interface, which means the brain can be connected wirelessly to an external device. This could then be capable of both reading and writing large amounts of information.
So far, this system has only been tested on animals, but Neuralink will begin seeking FDA approval for human trials of the system in early 2020 – the first of which will be for patients with paralysis.
Neuralink: Why do we need it?
The Neuralink team believes the medical uses of its brain-computer interface could be the most promising. Potential applications could include amputees regaining mobility with prosthetics, or the tech being used to treat spinal cord injuries, as well as aiding vision, hearing and other sensory issues.
However, Elon Musk also has another reason for developing such an advanced brain-computer interface: “to secure humanity’s future as a civilisation relative to AI.” Musk believes that if our brains are enhanced, there’s less chance that artificial intelligence will pose a threat to our existence further down the line.
“Even under a benign AI, we will be left behind,” Musk says. “With a high bandwidth brain-machine interface, we will have the option to go along for the ride.”
Neuralink: What else is out there?
Doctors, scientists and researchers have been working on ways to augment and directly interact with the brain for decades, including cochlear ear implants and deep brain stimulation, which is used to treat Parkinson’s.
The devices most similar to Neuralink’s proposed implant have only been able to restore limited function to those who are paralysed or have other neurological disorders. What’s more, they’re also mostly confined to research labs and a long way from being used in people’s day-to-day lives where they’d have the biggest impact.
There are also other brain-computer interfaces already commercially available, and being developed, which operate differently – and, crucially, don’t always require surgery to work.
“Invasive brain-computer interfaces are those that require getting through the skull and putting electrodes in the brain directly, so that they can listen to individual neurons,” Dr Grace Lindsay, a computational neuroscientist and author, told Wareable. “This kind of BCI is being developed for patients that are severely paralysed, who need a device that can read from their brain directly in order to restore movement. It is also used in neuroscience labs to study the brains of animals.”
Other kinds of brain-computer interfaces could have a similar effect, but without the short-term dangers and potential long-term damage of surgery. “Currently, commercial BCI is non-invasive; it can come in the form of a headband or hat, for example,” Lindsay explains. “These devices are picking up on signals similar to what a doctor would get from an EEG.”
She says that although invasive brain-computer interfaces, such as Neuralink, offer a better quality signal, they require surgery, whereas non-invasive interfaces have a weaker signal. “It is a combination of many different neurons and has to get passed through the skull. It's good enough to be able to indicate yes or no without moving a muscle, for example, but not much more than that,” Lindsay tells us.
A number of companies are already developing non-invasive brain-computer interfaces in an attempt to treat medical conditions, including Kernel and Ctrl Labs, which are both experimenting with wearable interfaces that can be worn as a wristband or a hat.
Similarly, companies like Neurosky and Emotiv have trained machine learning algorithms to recognise brain patterns collected from headsets. These patterns can then be associated with a physical or digital command, which could be used to interact with games and everyday tech. For example, the Emotiv team uses the example of thinking of a trigger world, like ‘push’, and your avatar then pushing an object out of its path in a virtual game.
However, most of this technology is still confined to research labs. The brain tech currently on the market is much simpler. Rather than creating a two-way interface with the brain, many wearables aimed at consumers have used other methods, including EEG, which records the electrical activity generated by the brain, as well as neurostimulation, which uses small electrical pulses to stimulate the neurons in the brain.
For example, Halo aims to improve physical attributes through ‘neuropriming’, which involves sending electrical currents to the user’s brain through a headphones-style device. The Muse 2 meditation headband has five EEG sensors that read brain activity in an attempt to help you to calm your mind and the UrgoNight uses EEG to help you sleep better.
Neuralink: What does the future hold?
It’s easy to get swept up in the hype of Neuralink. However, every member of the Neuralink team acknowledged they have “a long way to go” before the tech is available commercially. But even if Neuralink manages to create a fully-functioning brain-computer interface for us all – does it mean it should?
Discussions about ethics are hugely important in the development of new technologies, especially neurotechnologies and artificial intelligence. Until now, similar brain tech ideas have been basic and their development has been slow, which has given us breathing room for conversations about ethical development. But with big ambitions and millions in funding, Neuralink’s plans could move more quickly than anyone expects.
Firstly, there are a number of physiological factors to consider. “Brain surgery is a serious thing and anyone undergoing it should be fully informed of the potential risks, both short- and long-term,” Lindsay tells us.
There are also concerns about how technology implanted in the brain could affect behaviour, personality and mental state – after all there’s still so much we don’t know about the brain.
“There is also the question of who has access to the data the device is producing and transmitting,” Lindsay tells us. “As with any sensitive data, this would need to be protected and patients should approve of its uses.”
On a much larger scale, we also need to consider the societal impact of making changes to human life that could be both huge and permanent. Elon Musk said his aim is “a sort of symbiosis with artificial intelligence”. But do we need to merge man and machine to one day stop AI from taking over, or is that more science-fiction than science fact? And who will have access to brain tech? We could be in danger of creating a society that’s split by who can and can’t afford these enhancements.
Whether Neuralink reaches its goal of augmenting our brains or not remains to be seen, but the current interest around the company might drive the industry forward in many ways – even if Musk’s plans don’t come to fruition.
“People who weren't aware of the state of this research area might want to get involved now,” says Lindsay. “And having a company like Neuralink that is putting money into the development of these techniques is already a nice boost to the field.”
How we test