NeuraLink is a Brain Machine Interface (BMI) which can read and write into our brains. Founded by Elon Musk in 2016, they have presented different prototypes of BMI over time. The latest one looks something like a much thicker version of a coin.
Brain Machine Interfaces are not new, and have been used to treat various patients of Parkinson’s disease, Dystonia, OCD, restore hearing and Epilepsy. What NeuraLink brings to the table is its improvements to the existing technology. The current state-of-art BMI’s have at most 100 wires connecting to the brain. NeuraLink’s latest prototype has over a 1000. The wires themselves too are thinner than the state-of-art BMI’s.
How does it work?
Our brain contains vast arrays of neurons which respond to electrical signals sent from one place to another whenever we think, act, or do anything which involves our brain in some way or other. When these neurons fire, an electromagnetic field exists.
So, NeuraLink’s device will transmit this analog data with thousands of small threads acting as electrodes implanted in our brains. These analog signals will then be converted to digital data which will then be interpreted by digital devices. Similarly, digital signals can be converted into analog signals and then sent to the brain.
The device will learn which parts of the brain react to which things and in which ways by various learning algorithms. Doing so will allow it to operate with greater precision.
The thread implants will be 1/10ths thinner than a human hair and will be implanted by a robot to prevent any injuries or pain. The procedure will be done without anesthesia as it is not required.
The immediate goal of NeuraLink is to develop BMI for medical use to help people with severe spinal cord damage. Future applications of NeuraLink and by extension BMI can treat Depression, Chronic pain, Tinnitus, and restore vision amongst a multitude of other things.
For now, NeuraLink intends to help people move the cursor on their computers. They also intend to work towards letting people control game controllers, text other people or even talk through telepathy.
In recent years, technology in the form of computers, mobile phones, and wearables have become a vital part of our lives. NeuraLink aims to serve as a medium to let us use the same technology but not in its physical form such as screens or keyboards. Instead, they will focus on sending vision and audio to our brains directly instead of our eyes and ears.
There are various implications about its future uses as well. Elon Musk has himself stated that he is aiming to achieve A.I. symbiosis. Since the device in his own words is “a fitbit for your brain”, there can be an app store for it as well, allowing people to run different programs. Think something similar to the scene in the movie ‘The Matrix’ where Neo is able to learn martial arts as well as how to fly a helicopter with the press of a button.
Perhaps because of its seemingly infinite applications, even research universities have begun developing similar brain machine interfaces (UCSF for example).
The design of course, is not final by any means. I don’t know how Elon feels about having to charge it each and every day, but I won’t get one if we end up having to. Moreover, NeuraLink themselves know that the final device needs to have wires made of a material which can last for years without corroding or getting damaged which may result in infections.
All seems well when we consider what I’ve talked about previously, however this technologies implications on our future and lives can only be seen by looking at the bigger picture.
The ethical implications are immense. While on one hand we are talking about empowering people with the technology, people who may not be fortunate enough to access it may be left behind. What happens if someone hacks into the device? Do they get access to your emotions, thoughts, and memories? You might begin to realise how NeuraLink as a corporation may abuse this power if the technology ends up becoming commonplace.
NeuraLink aims to merge A.I. with our brains at some point in the future. But to which extent will A.I. take over our actions, thoughts, and feelings? How much (if any) free will can we exercise at that point? Although NeuraLink may plan to implement this aim of theirs in a different way, it is bound to happen sooner or later. Elon Musk also stated that NeuraLink will help us create an ideal world which everyone wants, but how exactly will that be achieved remains to be seen.