Since Elon Musk first unveiled his latest venture, Neuralink, in July 2019 – the little Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) has undergone some radical changes. Initially, the value proposition of the device, was very akin to how Neo was able to download knowledge into his brain, in the 1999 science fiction action film, The Matrix; We’d eventually be able to stimulate our brains with a Neuralink, in ways that would then cause new pathways to form inside our brains.. We’d be able to program our minds!
I (don’t) know Kung-Fu
Lately, the ambition of the Neuralink project seems to have been adjusted a bit, however. At the most recent press event, this year in August, Elon had a few new things to show (here is a summarized video). At the event, the neurotechnology company was able to display, that they had successfully implanted the new (and smaller) Neuralink BCIs into three pigs. Using the updated devices, that require 1024 electrodes to be inserted into the brain – the company showed a live demo at the event, where neural spikes were captured in pigs (by stimulating their snouts) and visualized on a screen. In other words, they displayed that they could successfully READ from the brain.
After wrestling with a shy hog, suffering from stage fright, the event moved into the Q&A part of the presentation. As the members of the current Neuralink team started talking about the potential applications of this new technology, it became somewhat clear to everyone watching, that the ambition of Neuralink – the vision of the near-future, potential applications – had become less about gaining super-powers, and more about fixing neurological diseases and disabilities. No ‘jacking in’ and learning a new programming language in an afternoon for now.
Fixing the signals
So where does that leave us? What is the current promise of Neuralink – and what are some feasible applications of the technology for now?
The head neurosurgeon at Neuralink, Matthew Macdougall, said during the Q&A event, that the device is limited to the cortical surface of the brain for now. This apparently simplifies the problems involved with going a lot deeper.. Which leads to the question: “What problems can be ‘solved’ on the cortical surface of the brain?“.
It seems that the version of Neuralink, which we will see on the market initially, will be in the form of an advanced medical aid, that focuses on assisting people with low-level sensory issues. This is because, ‘motor-intentions’ and sensory information is processed on this cortical surface-layer of the brain. Macdougall himself suggested, that people who struggle with auditory perception – or visual processing, might be some of the first people who will benefit from the implant. “You can solve blindness, you can solve paralysis and you can solve hearing” – as Elon boldly added to his statement.
Elon finished up, by stating that the company is aiming for a general purpose device initially – and that the longer-term goal, within the next couple of years, will be to interface with the Hypothalamus in deeper layers of the brain. In these deeper regions of the brain, they will be able to influence things such as anxiety, depression and addiction.
However, this is years away. Before Neuralink gets there, better technology has to be invented. The team behind the current device explained, that longer electrodes – and better procedures for the injection of these, is a problem that is being worked on right now. Specifically, a hard problem seems to be detecting the deeper vascular structures of the brain, that you don’t want to puncture. The surgery has to be so precisely carried out, that a human being cannot do it – it is performed by a robot (one that the company is also developing).
Neuralink will be an interesting expression of human ingenuity to follow, and the company is currently scaling up – recruiting the best and brightest to develop their BCI. Anyone from software engineers, to materials specialists, to experts in robotics. I for one, can’t wait to see what the future has in store, for an augmented human species.
Watch the entire 2020 presentation of the Neuralink device here.