From the onset of this company, Musk has been subjected to internet trolls and serious accusations about how he is on a venture to controlling the world’s population by manipulating their brains. Neuralink, co-founded by Elon Musk in 2016, is developing a device that is capable of reading signals from the human brain whilst placed inside the skull.
However, this brain implant technology has a meaningful purpose that internet bandwagons fail to understand. As said by Musk in the Neuralink demo, their goal is to “Solve important brain and spine problems with a seamlessly implanted device“. When fully developed, this device will allow paralyzed people to perform day-to-day activities, such as, walking or typing on a smartphone, without any supervision.
So this is an amazing technology that will help patients improve their quality of life by placing a device inside their brain. Wait what? A device inside the brain? Understandably, people are skeptical about having something in their brain and this is largely portrayed in the form of memes and trolls. But let’s try to shift our focus from the trolls and turn on our big brain to understand how a brain implant can seamlessly improve our quality of life.
How does Neuralink (And Other Brain-Machine Interface) works?
The brain consists of neurons. Whenever you want to move your hands, the neurons in your brain transmit a signal to the cells responsible for moving your hand muscles. There is not one single neuron that carries the signal from your brain to the muscle, rather, there are many neurons chained together (not literally) which carry the message from your brain to the muscle. Information in neurons are actually chemical substances, and when it moves from neurons to neurons, the chemical ions move, which produces current, and hence electric signals.
Neuralink’s chip consists of electrodes that can capture these signals when placed in closed proximity. The closer it is to the neurons, the better quality of signal you can capture, and therefore Neuralink will place their chip directly inside the skull for strong signals. These signals are then amplified by the chip and then transferred to a computer (or a receiver), via Bluetooth, for decoding.
Neuralink’s Latest Prototype
The picture below shows the latest prototype of the chip that will be inside the skull. It is called, “The Link”. It is 8mm thick and 23mm long in diameter, almost the size of a coin. The silver paper-like sheet is actually a collection of really tiny electrodes that are responsible for catching the brain signals. There are 1024 electrodes of each 0.005mm in diameter. The electrodes are made that small so that it does not damage the skin, blood vessels, and nerves while placing it inside the skull. The device is fully operational throughout the day. It is to be charged inductively – the method that phones use for wireless charging. Musk suggests it can be charged while the person sleeps at night.
The device requires accurate placement of the electrodes inside the skull, close to the required neurons, without causing any damage. Such precision is not possible through a human surgeon. Therefore, Neuralink has developed a robot that will perform the surgery to put the device in your head. The surgery requires no anesthesia and can be performed in less than an hour. Musk says that there will be a slight mark on your head after the surgery, but if you have hair, no one will know that there is something inside.
An Example Application of Neuralink
Let’s say a person is paralyzed and cannot walk. We can fit an exoskeleton structure on his legs but he still won’t be able to walk because the signal from the brain does not reach the leg muscles. If we put the the link inside his skull, everything changes. When he wants to walk, his brain will transmit a signal to the leg muscles. The link can read these signals and transmit them to a receiver (via Bluetooth) on his exoskeleton structures. The structure will receive the signal and perform the action of walking.
What Has Neuralink Achieved So Far?
Elon Musk has shown a live demonstration of the device operation placed inside the skull of a pig named, Gertrude. They placed the chip in her head such that the electrodes connect to the neurons in her snout. Whenever she touched anything with her snout or sniffed at objects, the signals captured by the chip were shown in real-time. You can see the demonstration here. The implant was inside her head for two months at the time of presentation and she seemed fine and indistinguishable from the other pigs.
Musk also showed a pig which had two implants in its head, proving that you can safely have multiple chips inside your skull.
In April 2021, Neuralink released a video of a nine year old monkey (Paige) with the implant, playing a video game with its mind. First, Paige was trained to use a joystick. While moving the joystick, Paige’s brain fires neurons to move his hand muscles. If Paige wants to move the joystick up, some neurons fire more than the others. When he moved the joystick right, other neurons were more active.
This brain activity was captured by Neuralink’s decoder which found the patterns of neurons that become active if Paige were to move the joystick in a certain direction.
Then, Paige played a game of Pong without the joystick itself. You will know which game I am writing about when you see the screenshot below. Basically, you have to move the “stick” on your side to hit the ball, and if your opponent fails to hit the ball, you get a point.
So this time, there is no joystick. Paige simply thought about moving his stick up or down to hit the ball. The implant in his skull captured the signals from the brain, passed it to the decoder which decoded the direction Paige wants the stick to move and executed the movement accordingly.
Similarly, a paralyzed person can look at the smartphone and simply think about the letters to type. The decoder can decode those signals and type out the letters. This has not happened yet, but this is something we can expect when the technology is fully developed.
What’s Next For Neuralink?
Elon Musk said that human trials would start at the end of 2020. That obviously didn’t happen, and the reason could be attributed to the pandemic or Musk’s overly optimistic words. But anyway, the next step is to test the device on humans, specifically on patients with paraplegia and tetraplegia – types of paralysis that impair movements of certain joints.
Addressing The Controversy – Should We Worry?
The company was subjected to controversy since its beginning. However, there was one thing that ignited the issue. In response to a question, if Neuralink could save and replay memories, Musk responded positively and remarked that memories could be downloaded on a robot body and replayed. Does that mean we become cyborg?
This is definitely not true and I am sure Musk himself knows it won’t happen at least in this century. This is his way of generating havoc and creating publicity. He is just drawing attention so that more people talk about it, which is good for him from a business perspective. So there are things he says which he knows are not true, but says them anyway for the hype.
Some people think with the link in our head, our minds can be controlled. This is neuron stimulation. Someone has to stimulate the neurons in your brain to make you do certain actions. This is not possible with the link. The link is literally, as Musk said, “a Fitbit in your skull”. A Fitbit tracks your step count, calories burned, and heart rate, but it cannot make you run 2km if you are inherently lazy. Similarly, the link reads your brain activity, but it cannot tell your brain to do something.
What about patients’ privacy? If they know what the patient is thinking, their thoughts can be misused. However, the link can only read brain activity. The signal interpretation is done by a decoder. In neuroscience, the motor nerves – the ones responsible for the movement of joints – is well studied, unlike the nerves responsible for emotions and ideas. If I think about committing a murder, certain neurons in my brain will fire, and the link can read this brain activity. But for the link, they are just signals. Neuroscience is not as advanced on these subjects, yet.
What if the device is hacked? Well, this is a legitimate concern, and one of the biggest challenges of the company. Digital systems are susceptible to attacks, which could lead to the misuse of patients’ data. This is something Musk and his employees must seriously think about, which I am sure they are doing.
Brain-Machine Interface technology has been around for over 20 years and they have been tested on humans in academic settings. Brain signals have been detected by neuroscience researchers all the time. No one said anything before Neuralink. The only new thing about Neuralink is that a device is placed directly inside the skull using a robot. People are talking about it now only because of Elon Musk’s status.