Written by R Rohit Bharadwaj & Kshema Sudhir
Elon Musk and Neuralink
Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and founder of SpaceX, kick-started his illustrious career when he co-founded Zip2, which was acquired by Compaq for US$305 million, and X.com which he sold to eBay for USD$1.5 billion. Since then, he has added many industry-disrupting companies to his portfolio, including The Boring Company and OpenAI.
Neuralink, one of Elon Musk’s newest ventures manages to trump his other companies in terms of the boldness of its engineering undertaking as well as being potentially revolutionary. While his other companies attempt to redefine what future humans will do, Neuralink wants to redefine what future humans will be.
Here's a super-fast trip, encompassing everything, of Elon musk's show-
Neuralink is developing ultra-high bandwidth brain-machine interfaces to connect humans and computers. Now, what’s a “brain-machine interface”(BMI)?
A BMI is a device that translates neural information into commands capable of controlling external software or hardware such as a computer or robotic arm. Simply put, it is a direct communication pathway between a brain and an external device. BMIs are often used as assisted living devices for individuals with motor or sensory impairments. While different BMIs serve different functions, all BMIs grapple with the same fundamental issue:
How to read information from the brain?
How to write information to the brain?
The first is about recording and interpreting the electrical symphony created by the neurons during various tasks and the seconding is about inputting information into the brain’s natural flow artificially - by stimulating neurons. But this isn’t as easy as it sounds.
The thought behind Neuralink
But Let’s take a look at Neuralink and Elon’s thought process behind its conception. If we take a look at SpaceX and Tesla, it starts with a specific future where a certain technology that positively impacts humanity is adopted. The first step towards this is setting up a sustainable that fuels company innovation which in turn gaslights industry innovation. The final goal is the mass adoption of that technology. For Tesla, that final goal is mass adoption of cars that run on sustainable energy and for SpaceX, it is to establish humans as a multi-planetary species. For Neuralink, the final goal is to achieve the mass adoption of BMIs for successful Human-Machine integration. Let me explain.
According to Elon Musk and many others, the development of superintelligent AI poses the single greatest existential threat to humanity. And it’s hard to ignore the rationale behind it. Our intelligence is what sets us apart from every other creature on this planet. We rule over every other life-form with our godlike powers, destroying and exploiting at will. Hence it’s only logical to be apprehensive about creating something far more intelligent than ourselves.
There are two potentially dangerous outcomes of AI that we could face in the future:
Humans getting superseded by superintelligent AI
A group gaining monopolistic control of such AI
Elon Musk tries to tackle this two-pronged problem with two solutions. His company OpenAI hopes to prevent such a monopoly in the future by making AI tools accessible for everyone, while Neuralink attempts to solve the first problem: people.
The goal is to develop a highly advanced brain chip, i.e electrode array that acts as a digital tertiary, essentially becoming cyborgs capable of mindblowing human-human, human-computer interactions that can take place instantly. In essence, the objective is to reduce the gap between humans and AI.
Let’s speculate as to what a highly advanced, ideal brain chip may be capable of:
Thought communication: You can have conversations where the message is sent instantly through your brain. This message could be multimedia (images, video, etc). In essence, explaining one’s ideas would become obsolete since you could share with someone the very idea itself.
Emotional communication: By extension, it would also be possible to share emotions. The word empathy would be heightened to a whole new level, where one person communicates just what they’re feeling, the other person would be able to access the feeling in their own emotional centers.
Sensory communication: Humans would have sensory input and output capabilities. For instance, if you’re on a hike, you could share your sensory feed so any of your friends could see and feel exactly what you’re seeing and feeling. A surgeon could operate a machine scalpel and receive sensory input from it in such a way that it would feel like an 11th finger. You could record and store these inputs and play them back in the future. In essence, Black Mirror would become a reality.
Taking control of mood disorders: A lot of mood disorders are linked to certain chemicals in the brain. Neural stimulation would be far superior to the pharmaceuticals we currently use, as they can target a specific region of the brain and carry information in real-time.
However, several social and technological barriers need to be overcome before we can even come close to such a future:
Our non-understanding of the brain: The human brain is a complex, sophisticated biological computer that parses through billions of bits of information a second and handles dozens of tasks simultaneously. The cerebrum, the largest part of the brain, handles most high order tasks. The cerebral cortex, commonly known as grey matter, is the thin outer layer of the cerebrum. It can be thought of as the rind, or bark draped over the interior of the cerebrum. The cortex is responsible for most information processing and is hence the “thinking” part of the brain. If the cortex were to be peeled off and spread out, it would have an approximate surface area equivalent to that of an average chessboard. The only way this can fit in our little noggins is through ridges and folds, called sulci and gyri respectively. In fact, about 2/3rds of the cortex remains hidden. Moreover, just the cerebral cortex has around 20 billion neurons which equates to over 20 trillion neural connections in the cortex alone. Thus, once the engineering progress of “reading” the brain is achieved, the scientific progress of understanding will follow.
Bandwidth: There have never been more than a couple hundred electrodes in a human brain at once. That equates to recording around 500 neurons simultaneously. When it comes to vision, that equals a super low-res image. When it comes to motion, that limits the possibilities to simple commands with little control. When it comes to your thoughts, a few hundred electrodes won’t be enough to communicate more than the simplest spelled-out message.
We need a lot more bandwidth to achieve our goals. While 1,00,000 neurons would allow for the creation of many useful tools, the Neuralink team had a goal of 1 million. Over the last five decades, progress in neural recording techniques has allowed the number of simultaneously recorded neurons to double approximately every 7 years, mimicking Moore’s law. Taking this into account, at the current rate, recording a million neurons will take 70 more years, which might just be too long.
Implantation: As long as BMIs require invasive brain surgery, they will never take off commercially. This invasive procedure involves a craniotomy and resection of the dura. The surgical procedure introduces a possible pathway for infection. Implantation can lead to small-scale tissue damage that increases with a greater number of implants. Glial scarring occurs at the insertion site and is thought to be a major factor reducing the longevity of usable signals that can be recorded in a chronically implanted individual. Additionally, the procedure itself is exorbitantly expensive and in limited supply. Unless the implantation can take place through an automated, less invasive process, the world cannot embrace this newfangled technology.
Biocompatibility: The largest problem-plagued with invasive BMIs is that the materials used for their construction aren’t chemically resilient, elicit a negative biological response, or have difficulty functioning for extended periods of time in the harsh body environment. Many of these implantable devices experience catastrophic failure within weeks to months because of these negative factors.
This is far from ideal since future brain interfaces will need to be hermetically sealed and be robust enough to withstand decades of movement and shifting of neurons without compromising on functionality. On a more promising note, new research has led to the innovation of newer and better interfaces. For eg., A team from the University of Delaware has developed a biocompatible polymer coating for electronic implants that causes less scarring on biological tissue than inorganic coated electronics.
Current State of Neuralink
On August 29th, Elon Musk showed off Neuralink’s progress in a YouTube Livestream. The current focus of Neuralink is on the different conditions it can overcome, including blindness, paralysis, and memory loss. Musk provided details on various aspects of the Neuralink device such as its features, implantation process, and even provided a live demo of the implementation of the Neuralink. The device is approximately the size of a large coin that is placed in the skull and the wires connect within an inch or so away from the device. With all-day battery life, the device can be charged like a normal smartphone.
Considering the precision required to install this device, Musk emphasized on the need for an advanced surgical robot to carry out the entire surgery, and he also presented a demo of the robot during the launch. In order to write to the brain, it is important to ensure precise control of the electric field in space and time, a wide range of current for different regions of the brain, where some regions may require delicate simulations whereas other may require stronger currents, and finally, it is important to ensure that there would not be any adverse effects to the brain over time. The Neuralink device obtained FDA’s Breakthrough Device designation in July, and preparations are being made for the first human implantation, following required approvals and safety testing. In the future, the device is believed to hold the capability to save and revisit old memories and even download them to a new body or robot. That Black Mirror-Esque world doesn't look like science fiction anymore does it...