Author: The Economist Correspondent
Source: The Economist (https://www.economist.com/science-and-technology/2019/07/18/elon-musk-wants-to-link-brains-directly-to-machines)
The Economist calls him the “world’s most famous entrepreneur” given his desire to solve the world’s problems, be it climate change, mobility, space travel, urban transportation. Yet his most progressive project, in terms of potential impact on humanity could be Neuralink, his company which last week announced a new Brain-Machine Interface (BMI) that can connect the human brain to computers by implanting electrodes inside the brain picking up signals (thoughts or instructions) and transmit them to machines to perform tasks. This at one level is intended to make humans achieve their full potential (Musk believes that the human brain’s computing capacity is immense and is only constrained by its input and output capacity i.e, there are only so many books you can read in a lifetime or there is only so much we can speak or write/type). At another level, Musk’s intentions are to prepare humans to compete with machines lest AI lets machines take over the planet. Well, if Neuralink fails, we hope he succeeds with SpaceX to take us all to Mars.
“Connecting brains directly to machines is a long-standing aspiration. And it is already happening, albeit in a crude way. In deep-brain stimulation, for example, neurosurgeons implant a few electrodes into a patient’s brain in order to treat Parkinson’s disease. Utah arrays, collections of 100 conductive silicon needles, are now employed experimentally to record brain waves. A team at the University of Washington has built a “brain-to-brain network” that allows people to play games with each other using just their thoughts. And researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, have captured neural signals from people as they talk, and have then turned that information, via a computer, into intelligible speech.
As with all things Musk-related, Neuralink is much more ambitious. The firm does not just want to develop a better BMI. Its aim is to create a “neural lace”, a mesh of ultra-thin electrodes that capture as much information from the brain as possible. Unsurprisingly, hurdles abound. The electrodes needed to do this must be flexible, so that they do not damage brain tissue and will also last for a long time. They have to number at least in the thousands, to provide sufficient bandwidth. And to make the implantation of so many electrodes safe, painless and effective, the process has to be automated, much like LASIK surgery, which uses lasers to correct eyesight.
Neuralink does indeed seem to have made progress towards these goals. Its presentation, at the California Academy of Sciences, in San Francisco, included videos of a neurosurgical robot that is best described as a sewing machine. This robot grabs “threads” (films, containing electrodes, that measure less than a quarter of the diameter of a human hair), and shoots them deep into the brain through a hole in the skull. It is capable of inserting six threads, each carrying 32 electrodes, per minute. The firm has also designed a chip that can handle signals from as many as 3,072 electrodes—ten times more than the best current systems—and transmit them wirelessly.
The real magic, however, kicks in only when the output is analysed—which happens in real time. Looked at superficially, neurons in the brain seem to fire at random. Software can, though, detect patterns when the individual those neurons are in does certain things. Stick enough electrodes into someone’s motor cortex, for instance, and it is possible to record what happens in the brain when he types on a keyboard or moves a mouse around. Those data can then be used to control a computer directly. Conversely, the electrodes can be employed to stimulate neurons, perhaps to give the person in question the feeling of touching something.
Neuralink has already tested its system successfully on rats and monkeys. These were, it says, able to move cursors on screens with it. The firm now hopes to work with human volunteers, perhaps as early as next year should America’s Food and Drug Administration play along.
The first goal is to use the technology to help people overcome such ailments as blindness and paralysis. Neuralink is, however, clearly aiming for a bigger market than this. It has also designed a small device that would sit behind someone’s ear, picking up signals from the implanted chip and passing them on as appropriate. In a few years, using a brain implant to control your devices may be as de rigueur among San Francisco’s techno-chics as wearing wireless earbuds is today. Ultimately, Mr Musk predicts, neural lace will allow humans to merge with AI systems, thus enabling the species to survive.
Though, as this announcement shows, Mr Musk does have a habit of presenting himself as the saviour of the human race (his desire to settle Mars seems motivated partly by fear of what might, in the future, happen to Earth), the idea that some machines at least will come under the direct control of human brains seems plausible. The biggest obstruction to this happening will probably not be writing the software needed to interpret brainwaves, but rather persuading people that the necessary surgery, whether by sewing machine or otherwise, is actually a good idea.”
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