On August 28th, 2020, Elon Musk hosted a livestream with updates on his company Neuralink’s progress toward making a brain machine interface. So what has changed in the time since we were first introduced to Neuralink over year ago, and where does the company see themselves going from here?
A brain machine interface or BMI is just what it sounds like, a machine that can interface with a brain. BMIs have potential uses helping the disabled move robotic limbs or even helping able-bodied people use computers and devices in newer and faster ways. There are a few approaches to making a BMI, and Neuralink’s uses electrodes on strands just a few micrometers thick that are threaded in between neurons to read their activity. Neuralink’s latest BMI still relies on those threads but otherwise looks radically different from how it first appeared. The rats that sported earlier iterations had a USB-C port sticking out of their heads that sent information gathered by electrodes to outside devices. Eventually, the goal was to have completely implanted chips communicating wirelessly with an outside device sitting behind the ear. The latest device is much more simplified. Dubbed Link V0.9, it measures 23 mm by 8 mm, about the size of a chunky coin. Rather than residing entirely in the skull, Link V0.9 actually replaces a piece of it. Once a hole has been drilled and the electrodes are threaded into the brain, the disk-shaped BMI fills in the gap and the skin is super glued over it. No, I do mean it's super glued over it, not joking. Anyway when it’s all said and done, the only evidence that a person is now a cyborg is a tiny scar which can be hidden by hair.
Each link has 1024 channels to monitor neural activity and compresses and sends data to a device like a phone at a rate of megabits per second. A person could even have multiple links depending on their needs and if they’re ok with having a skull that looks like swiss cheese.
Though the Neuralink researchers aren’t too concerned about replacing bits of skull with their devices. They say that since bone’s properties are well understood it’s not hard to design something that can withstand whatever situations a normal skull might see. To demonstrate their latest prototype worked and was robust enough to handle a rough-and-tumble lifestyle, Neuralink introduced a pig named Gertrude.
Gertrude had a Link V0.9 installed two months prior, and her device monitored neurons that represented her snout. Whenever Gertrude sniffed food or a handler touched her snout, a screen showed activity in her brain spiking, while making little beeps and boops. Neuralink started testing with pigs because of their similar skull thickness and membrane makeup to humans. But there were some unexpected benefits, like the fact that they bump into things constantly which Musk said was a good demonstration of the device’s integrity. And pigs can be trained to walk on treadmills.
This allows the researchers to read neurons dealing with moving joints. Based on the readings, they could predict accurately where the joints would move. Technology like that could be huge for paraplegic and tetraplegic people. Musk reasons that because people who are paralized due to a spine injury have effectively had the connection between their brain and their limbs severed, their device could help people walk again by decoding movement impulses and transmitting them to the other side of the break. While miraculously making people walk again is an incredible goal, Neuralink’s aims go far beyond that.
The device can also send impulses to the neurons so some employees imagine it treating a whole host of brain disorders. Musk, ever the futurist, pictures the technology could be used for storing memories, downloading them into robots, or communicating at high speed with AI. Those are pretty lofty ambitions and there are a lot of hurdles to clear between here and the future Musk pictures. The device needs to be tested in humans, though the FDA has granted Neuralink breakthrough device designation, moving them closer to human trials. The machine that weaves the threads into the brain looks sleeker and more medical than it did last year, but it’s still limited to implanting electrodes into the cortex and can’t go deeper yet. And then there’s the barrier that is our own understanding of how the human brain works. We’ll have to learn more about the language of neurons to be able to decode their spikes and techno-beeps into something meaningful, and we are very far away from that.
Ironically the researchers at Neuralink suggested their device, that can actually be inside the brain and monitoring activity, could be just the thing that pushes our understanding of the human brain to new heights. While some expected more from this presentation, it’s still progress. Based on what Neuralink has achieved with about 100 employees, it’ll be interesting to see where the technology is another year from now as the company grows. The Link V0.9 uses a battery that Musk claims will last all day and can be charged wirelessly overnight. How wireless charging on something embedded in your skull will work, I’m not exactly sure, but I like to picture Neuralink will develop some kind of pillow too, which will bring new meaning to the term “power nap”.
So is this something you’d stay away from or would you sign up to be one of the first transhumanist cyborgs? Let us know in the comments.