WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Many people worry that AI’s will one day get to a level where they replace and out compete humans, at work and in battle, so Musk is trying to help the two merge.
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Elon Musk’s Neuralink, the secretive commercial company developing Brain Machine Interfaces (BMI) that one day they hope will connect human minds directly with AI’s and machines, this week took the wrapper off the technology they’ve been developing.
The company’s goal, says Musk, is to eventually begin implanting devices in paralysed people so that they can control computers and smartphones with nothing more than their thoughts. And even though Musk gets a lot of the limelight in this area recently the US Military flexed their muscles and showed off their own version of Musk’s technology that allowed paralysed volunteers to control fleets of F-35 fighter jets with just their thoughts, and elsewhere Mark Zuckerberg and his team are busy designing non-invasive BMI as part of his attempt to turn Facebook into the “world’s first telepathic network.” Welcome to the future.
The first big advance Musk showed off was Neuralink’s flexible bio-compatible “Threads,” which are less likely to damage the brain than the materials used in many of today’s traditional invasive BMI’s. The threads, according to a white paper, can also transfer much higher volumes of data, and the final system could include “as many as 3,072 electrodes per array distributed across 96 threads,” which means it could transfer a lot of data to, for example, machines or other connected systems, much quicker than we can today.
The threads are tiny, just 4 to 6 μm in width, which makes them considerably thinner than a human hair, and in addition to developing the threads, Neuralink’s other big announcement was a robot surgeon that’s capable of automatically embedding the threads into patients.
Musk gave a big presentation of Neuralink’s research Tuesday night, but also said that it wasn’t simply for hype.
“The main reason for doing this presentation is recruiting,” said Musk, asking people to go apply to work there. Max Hodak, president of Neuralink, also came on stage and admitted that he wasn’t originally sure “this technology was a good idea,” but that Musk convinced him it would be possible.
“In the future,” said Hodak, “scientists from Neuralink hope to use a laser beam to get through patient’s skulls, rather than having to resort to drilling holes, and we’ll be doing early experiments alongside neuroscientists from Stanford University.”
“And we hope to have this in a human patient by the end of next year,” Musk added.
During a Q and A at the end of the presentation, Musk also revealed results of Neuralink’s first tests that the rest of the team didn’t know he was going to reveal: “A monkey has been able to control a computer with its brain,” he said.
“It’s not going to be suddenly Neuralink will have this Neural Lace (a reference to the technology that inspired Musk to create Neuralink in the first place) and start taking over people’s brains,” said Musk. “Ultimately we want to achieve a symbiosis with Artificial Intelligence before we [humans] get left behind [as AI takes over].”
“We want to create a technology that allows humans to merge with AI,” he said, adding, “We are a brain in a vat, and that vat is our skull, and so the goal is to read neural spikes from that brain.”
“Neuralink didn’t come out of nowhere, there’s a long history of academic research here,” said Hodak. “We’re, in the greatest sense, building on the shoulders of giants. However, none of the existing technologies fit Neuralink’s goal of directly reading neural spikes in a minimally invasive way.”
And the system Hodak and Musk presented, if it’s functional, might well be a significant advance over older invasive BMI technology, and when it’s combined with the new neurosurgical robot “that’s capable of inserting six threads (192 electrodes) per minute [automatically],” according to the white paper, it could be a game changer.
In photos the robot looks something like a cross between a microscope and a sewing machine, and it also avoids blood vessels, which may lead to less of an inflammatory response in the brain, the paper says.
For Musk, the central problem of interacting, or merging with, AI though is actually data bandwidth. Humans can take in information much more quickly than we push it out via our voice or our fingers, hence his ultimate goal to enable humans to use all of the capacity of our brain to interface with machines.
Finally, the paper states that Neuralink has “developed a custom chip that is better able to read, clean up, and amplify signals from the brain,” and that “right now, it can only transmit data via a wired connection using a USB-C interface,” but that “ultimately the goal is to create a system than can work wirelessly.”
That wireless goal, we’re told, will be embodied in a product that Neuralink calls the “N1 sensor,” designed to be embedded inside a human body and transmit its data wirelessly, and it might read fewer neurons than the current USB-based prototype. Neuralink intends to implant four of these sensors, three in motor areas of the brain, and one in a Somatosensor area, and they will connect wirelessly to an external device mounted behind the patient’s ear that will contain just a battery.
“[The N1 Sensor] will be controlled through an iPhone app,” Hodak said, adding, “There is a whole FDA process we have to go though, we haven’t done that yet.”
Matthew MacDougall, head surgeon at Neuralink who then appeared dressed in scrubs, said that safety is a primary goal, and that ultimately they want installing the N1 sensor to be as easy as “something like Lasik eye surgery” — including eliminating the need for general anaesthesia. But he acknowledged that the first patients wouldn’t have that non-invasive experience though.
Right now though the company is focused on testing the technology in rats to make sure it’s stable before going to human trials, but if it works then, as far as invasive Brain Machine Interfaces go Neuralink’s latest technology could be a significant step up in capability from today’s traditional interfaces, and for paralysed patients that could open up a whole new world of opportunity for them, so watch this space.
As for me though, well, I’m waiting for the non-invasive tech to catch up, because frankly, from a mass market perspective I doubt there will be a queue of people lining up to have a robot implant the N1 Sensor in their brains, and I have a hunch that that tech’s not too far behind…