WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Today this tech is aimed at helping people with neurological conditions get their lives back, tomorrow it could help humans merge with AI and share hive minds …
A while ago Elon Musk told everyone that Artificial Intelligence (AI) was a threat that “could one day lead to the creation of an immortal dictator,” and that the only way that humans could avoid “being its pet” was to merge with it. And voila, his company, Neuralink, which he recently said could also one day just stream music to your brain, was born.
Earlier this week and with much fanfair during a YouTube live stream event the company unveiled a pig called Gertrude that had been fitted with one of its latest Brain Machine Interface (BMI) devices, the prototype of which was first unveiled last year, and during the demonstration they showed it recording signals from an area of Gertrudes brain that was linked to her snout. As Gertrude’s snout touched things, an array of dots and a series of noises indicated when her brain’s neurons were firing.
The design of the Neuralink device has changed somewhat since it was unveiled last year, rendering the device itself hard to see on Gertrude. As you can see it’s now coin shaped and sits flush with the skull rather than having a small module resting near the ear like the original version.
“It’s like a Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires,” Musk said. The device can also pair with a smartphone app over Bluetooth Low Energy, he added.
As with last year’s event, Musk said the primary purpose of the demonstration was to recruit more people to join the team – Neuralink presently employs about 100 people but eventually he hopes the company will employ more than 10,000, and while the device hasn’t been tested in humans yet the US Food and Drug Administration has designated it as a “breakthrough device,” a program that means they can get feedback from the agency throughout the development process.
While Neuralink didn’t invent BMI’s, they’ve been around for a long time, one of its major contributions to the field is the development of new biocompatible circuitry and threads that, unlike older BMI devices, don’t corrode and damage the soft tissue of the users brain and can pick up even the faintest of brain impulses.
The threads also have more electrodes than other systems which means they can transmit more information faster, and one member of the team at the demonstration said that one of the main challenges for Neuralink was making sure the device could last for decades in a corrosive environment like the brain.
The other distinction between this project and others is Musk’s sheer ambition and drive. He said at the event that the device could help solve any number of neurological problems, from memory loss to strokes to addiction, or monitor a users health and warn them if they’re having a heart attack.
At last year’s event, he said that Neuralink could make the implant process for the device “as simple and safe as Lasik eye surgery,” and during the live stream he told the audience that implanting the device in patients could “now be done without general anesthesia in under an hour” using an autonomous robo-surgeon that he first revealed last year.
Now, after the successful trials in Gertrude the first clinical trials will be in a small number of patients with severe spinal cord injuries to make sure it works and is safe. Last year, Musk said he hoped to start clinical trials in people in 2020 so it looks like he’s on track, and long term Musk said the technology “will be able to restore full motion in people with neurological damage and injuries by using a second implant on the spine.” Which, frankly, would be amazing and build on research elsewhere that’s already making these kinds of treatments, such as reversing paralysis and restoring patients lost mobility, possible.
While any and all of these things sound amazing though the most important thing the device might be able to do, Musk said, would be to let people achieve what he calls “AI Symbiosis,” which would allow the human brain to merge with an AI.
Taking this thread further after, and if, his team achieves this staggering feat which, as we continue to merge electronics with biology, seems likely, then this could lead to the creation of the very first Hive Mind humans who, like the rats and robots before them who’ve already been plugged into Hive Mind constructs, would let individuals tap into and share the minds of others on the network and collaborate with one another as an Organic Computer. And yes that sounds nuts, but at the same time I can take you right down that wormhole and show you the tech innovations that are already making it possible. In fact, I can go one better – just click the links!
“Such that the future of the world is controlled by the combined will of the people of Earth [rather than an ‘immortal’ AI dictator] — I think that that’s obviously gonna be the future that we want,” said Musk.
Anyway, back to Neuralink’s demo … Right now the device is restricted to just the surface of the brain where many important functions, such as movement, vision, and hearing take place, rather than tunnelling deeper into the brain, and in the meantime Musk said the company is looking to recruit robotics, electrical and software engineers to work on it and refine the surgical procedure for the implementation.
Unfortunately though for Musk there’s been a lot of turnover at the company since it launched in 2017, and only two members of the founding team still work at Neuralink with former employees telling Stat News that the company was chaotic, and that researchers were under intense pressure to rush through projects. Scientists were sometimes given weeks to complete projects that should take months, for example.
“They are building a medical device and a surgical approach to implant that medical device, and they’re approaching it with the use of a tech company — move fast and break things,” one employee said.
And as for the price, well Musk said the device would be “quite expensive” when it first launches, but that he wants to get the price down to a few thousand dollars.
“I think it should be possible to get it similar to Lasik,” he said – like Lasik that cures all your neurological ills and connects you to a global hive mind while plugging you into AI … Is that a killer deal or what!? Hmmmm …