WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
As artificial intelligence gets better at out performing humans visionary entrepreneurs like Elon Musk want to make sure humanity isn’t left on the sidelines, a footnote in an AI history book.
Earlier this week wannabe Mars explorer, Tesla and SpaceX CEO, founder and billionaire polymath Elon Musk announced he’s launching a new company called NeuraLink that will focus on connecting – but not merging, as some reports have suggested – the human brain with computers and intelligent machines.
While the internet is now obviously awash with cyborg analogies the fact is that scientists and researchers have been working on this for decades using Brain Machine interfaces (BMI) which typically manifest themselves as those blue skull caps that you see in every neuroscience lab in every corner of the world.
The advances these teams have made over the years has been staggering, and life changing – they’ve used these interfaces to create telepathic bridges between individuals and robots, help locked in patients communicate with loved ones, and fly planes – and that’s just the snowflake on the top of the proverbial iceberg. This all said though it’s likely, going on Musk’s background, that he wants to push NeuraLink in a different direction.
Up until now almost all, but not quite all, of the development in this area has involved researchers trying to improve people’s ability and capacity to communicate with the intelligent machines around us using simply the power of thought, and all of that communication has been one way. Human to machine, or at best human to machine to human. In the past Musk though has spoken at length about a technology called the Neural Lace, something I’ll discuss in a moment, and when you compare the capabilities of the Neural Lace with today’s BMI technologies they’re light years apart.
When Musk last spoke about the Neural Lace concept he said: “Somebody’s got to do it,” then added, “if somebody doesn’t do it, then I think I should do it.”
Why? Because it’s designed to be the first system of its kind that allows us to initiate two-way communication between humans and machines, and that means that not only will we still be able to communicate with machines in much the same way we do today, but more basic than that it also means that they’ll be able to communicate with us – direct, two way, brain to computer communication. And that is a game changer.
Think, for example, of being able to hook your brain into the internet, or an artificial intelligence (AI) agent, or multiple AI agents, and draw on their experience, intellect and power – as well as their collective Hive Mind.
That’s where I think Musk’s NeuraLink company is going to be focusing its efforts, and when we look at the technologies that are available to Musk it’s evident favours the Neural Lace, and it’s easy to see why.
The first Neural Lace was trialled in an experiment back in 2015 by a team of scientists from Harvard University, and the National Center for Nanoscience and Technology in Beijing, who wanted to create a seamless interface between an intelligent machine and the biological circuitry of a brain, in this case a mouse brain.
Neural Laces are the nanotech equivalent of wrapping a skull cap directly around the cortex of your brain – inside your skull – and they do this by drawing on two types of technology. The first is “Mesh electronics,” that’s basically as it sounds, an electronic mesh, albeit at the nanoscale, and that’s what wraps around your brain. The second technology, well, that’s how they get into your body in the first place – in the teams 2015 experiment they managed to break the Neural Lace down and inject it into the mice, in short it’s what’s known in the business as a “Syringe injectable electronic device.” Again, just as it sounds – maybe these scientists need to come up with a few weird acronyms, this is getting too easy to follow.
Once in place the Neural Lace then converts digital signals from machines, most commonly RF signals, into electrical impulses that the brain’s neurons can detect and interpret. Voila – you’re now talking to an AI, and as we apparently only use 10% of our brains well, there’s nothing saying that using Smart Drugs, or some other technology, we won’t be able to fill the other 90% of our brains up with cat GIF’s.
To say the Neural Lace has some challenges though would be an understatement. Firstly there’s the issue of successfully coding and decoding biological and digital signals in a way that everyone, and every machine can interpret them. Secondly there’s the challenge of how to power a Neural Lace, although we could power it using low frequency RF waves – especially since it wouldn’t need much energy to power it. But thirdly, and potentially one of the gnarliest challenges – when you power things they heat up, and in that case the Neural Lace would literally cook your brain. Uh-oh! You try it first… I’m going to the back of the queue.
As for the other technologies that are available well, we could of course innovate new skull caps, but that seems a little low tech and “traditional” for Musk, or we could opt to go full cyborg and implant sensors directly into our brains – but that’s too invasive, and again it doesn’t seem to fit Musk’s style.
So my money? By the way I pay for this site myself, so my wallet only contains moths, well, it’s on the Neural Lace approach. Sign me up, I can’t wait to be all knowledgeable – like my wife…