Elon Musk’s Neuralink and the Future of Human-Machine Interfaces

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Since the inception of modern science, people have wondered what it might be like to expand the boundaries of the brainpower to achieve super-intelligence or be able to manipulate and read someone else’s thoughts.  Theorists and sci-fi enthusiasts, for years, have been talking about a singularity point where human and machine can merge, ultimately giving rise to situations like Neo from “The Matrix” who was able to download his thoughts, or like Alex Murphy who was resurrected as a superhuman cyborg in “Robocop”. To many, this seemed possible only in movies or theory, as the human mind was believed to be unchartered territory.

Not anymore.

In the last decade, there have been some significant achievements in the field of the brain-human interface (BCI). The most noticeable of them was Miguel Nicolelis and colleagues’, who demonstrated a brain-computer interface that detects arm movement intentions and deciphers them into real-time artificial actuators. Similarly, Jose Carmena and his team automated the neural coding in a BCI that allowed a monkey to control movements of a robotic arm. In 2019, a study published by UCSF demonstrated a BCI that had the potential to assist patients with speech impairment caused by neurological disorders.

Despite recent success in BCIs, the biggest obstacle to the technology is still the lack of a sensor modality that provides safe, accurate and sturdy access to brain signals. This is where Elon Musk’s Neuralink comes into the picture.

The tech startup, Neuralink, aims to build a BCI chip to connect the human brain with the computer interface through artificial intelligence. But unlike its predecessor, the startup interface would have the potential to create scalable high-bandwidth systems that would allow interaction with external devices like computers and phones. The initial goal is to enable people to control their smartphones by simply using their thoughts. However, Elon Musk’s plans are much grand than this: his idea of BCI is to enable people to merge with artificial intelligence to create a race of superhuman intelligence.

Neuralink has developed a data transmission system between the human mind and computers by embedding small wires with sensors and electrodes to detect, control and study electrical signals in the brain. This is not as implausible as it seems, as many startups are working to find the capability of brain-machine interaction. Companies such as CTRL-labs and Kernel are creating external devices that can detect neuronal firings and transmit information to an external device. CTRL-lab is working on a wristband that can measure electrical pulses along the neurons in the arm. These signals coming from the brain represent an intention to move and can be detected before the person moves or even if they do not move. This would enable people with quadriplegia to control artificial limbs like their own body parts.

Neuralink’s external device is capable of reading data from its implanted sensors which include 3072 flexible electrodes covering the human brain. This allows 15 times faster neuronal recording than any current system embedded in humans.  Neuralink’s electrodes, once placed in the holes in a patient’s skull, monitor brain activity and transmit it to a small device implanted behind the ear that transmits the data to a computer or smartphone.


An external device is used to connect links to devices

Neuralink’s device is based upon a BCI technology called Neural Lace. It is a super-thin mesh embedded into the skull to create an array of electrodes that incorporates into the brain tissue and reads brain functions. It is an emerging technology that may provide a safe link of the human brain with computers without the need for a physical connection. Recent studies have also shown that Neural Lace could be used to enhance bodily functions, memory, and mental power by creating a singularity between humans and Artificial Intelligence.

Along with the Neural Lace, the silk-based electrodes and ‘Neural dust’ sensors are also an essential part of the device. The human brain is a very complex yet sensitive organ and there is a great risk of damaging the brain by implanting the sensor in the face area of cortex. Silk-based electrodes comprise of ultra-thin polymer that can wrap on the curvature of the cerebral cortex without causing any inflammation, bacterial infection or brain injury. These silk-based electrodes consist of thousands of tiny independent devices operating as wirelessly powered nerve sensors. These sensors are the basis of the brain-machine interface and are used to record, monitor and control neural activity.


Neuralink’s phone app

The brain’s neurons create a large network of communication synapses. Through this network, the neurons communicate using a signal called neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are released as a result of an electric spike or action potential that sends signals all around our body. These action potentials produce an electric field that spreads from the neuron and can be detected by placing electrodes nearby, allowing recording of the information represented by a neuron.

The initial goal of scientists at Neuralink is to develop algorithms to detect and interpret patterns of neurons firing. Neuralink N1 chip consists of high-density electronics that process data from 1,124 individual electrodes, perform analog to digital conversion, and interpret the signals that represent action potentials from neurons.

Presently, the startup device is capable of monitoring the rat’s brain activity via microscopic electrodes implanted surgically with the neurons and synapses. However, Neuralink’s long-term goal is to develop this technology to treat serious brain diseases, paralysis, and spinal cord injuries. Brain diseases such as Parkinson’s create a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system responsible for relaying messages that control body movement. Neuralink’s proposed electrodes will have the ability of not only recording information emitted by neurons but also writing and stimulating signals to the brain, thus allowing the restoration of touch, vision and muscle control. The connections with spinal cord nerve or muscle stimulation would enable to improve motor parts control and restore the individual control of its body.

While it all seems accurate in theory, there will be many challenges in an already difficult journey for Neuralink to work effectively. To begin with, we have very little experience with embedding electrodes in the brains. No study supports the argument that this could work for a significant amount of time or will even read electrical impulses accurately with different devices. The issue is even more compounded by the fact that multiple implants would need to be built as different parts of the brain would require different structures and even different design variations of electrodes depending upon the patient and the impact of the brain disease itself.

However, even with these challenges, the human-machine interface is not entirely impossible with the existing technologies — with the financial and research backing and Elon Musk ambition and leadership, Neuralink’s goal is achievable. If all goes as planned, we will have unprecedented knowledge of our brain and maybe find a way to cure many of the deadliest brain diseases. Patients would be able to control smartphones or computers simply by their thoughts. If this science fiction comes to life, we might, one day, be able to download a new language, or upload our thoughts into our computer, or even digitally exchange them with someone else. This will be, quoting Neo,

A world where anything is possible. Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you.”

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