More than two years have passed since the world caught wind of Elon Musk's Neuralink, an ambitious and mysterious startup focused on developing brain-machine interfaces that can connect minds to machines. Not a lot has been revealed since, but the company today emerged from the shadows to share its progress so far, along with its plans for the future, which involve implanting its first chips in human as early next year.
There are quite a few reasons we might want to connect our brains to machines, and there are already a few ways of doing it. The primary methods involve using electrodes on the scalp or implanted into the brain to pick up the electrical signals it emits, and then decode them for a variety of purposes.
As we have seen in the last few years alone, these brainwaves could be used to control drones or an exoskeleton, allow paralyzed people to regain control over their limbs or use tablets and computers with their thoughts. As it stands, though, these electrodes are limited in how much information they can relay from the brain, and that's one of the key problems Neuralink has set out to solve.
The motivation for a new and improved brain-machine interface, Musk says, is to firstly understand and treat brain disorders, and then ultimately to enhance our brains to create a sort of "symbiosis" with artificially intelligent machines, rather than have them leave us behind.
"With a high bandwidth brain-machine interface we can actually go along for the ride, and we can have the option of merging with AI," he said.
In a presentation today, Musk and other key figures at Neuralink detailed a new kind of brain-machine interface that, among other improvements, would greatly boost the bandwidth these devices are capable of. Musk said that the best FDA-approved devices use around 10 electrodes to treat Parkinson's (though we have seen scientists implant hundreds at a time as part of early research projects).
Neuralink's first electrode array, meanwhile, which is a tiny chip it calls N1, features 1,000 channels. Rather than stiff electrodes that can bring a risk of injury, the N1 array uses very tiny and flexible threads around a third the diameter of human hair. These would be sewn into the brain tissue by a robotic surgeon, which Neuralink has also developed to safely insert the electrodes without rupturing blood vessels in the brain.
Once implanted, the N1 sensors would be capable of reading the brain's signals, or stimulating the brain with its own signals if need be, at far greater bandwidths than is currently possible. This data would be fed to a device surgically implanted behind the ear, which then passes it onto a computer wirelessly.
Initially, Neuralink wants to allow its users to control their smartphones via the N1 chip, which Musk says would be like "learning to touch type [to] play the piano." The company hopes to kick off clinical trials using rudimentary versions of its system in humans in 2020, though it describes that timeline as "aspirational."
These trials would involve sets of four N1 chips sewn into the brains of quadriplegics who have suffered spinal cord injuries. To begin with, and likely for some time, subjects will have the N1 chips implanted through traditional surgery under general anesthetic, but further down the track, with the help of its robotic surgeon, Musk imagines it will be far more straightforward.
"Sort of equivalent to a Lasik (laser eye surgery) kind of thing," Musk said. "You sit down, the machine does its thing, and you can walk away in a few hours."
From there, the device would operate wirelessly and ideally last for years or decades at a time.
Neuralink touched on some of the testing it has carried out on animals so far, describing the results as "very promising." Though it didn't dive into details in the presentation, Bloomberg reports that the robot was able to place the electrode threads correctly around 87 percent of the time, and that the data gathered from rats was about 10 times greater than what today's technology is capable of.
The 2020 timeline for these first implants does seem wildly optimistic, something not out of the ordinary for an organization headed by the famously ambitious Musk. The company would need to prove the safety of its chips in primates before it goes waving a drill anywhere near a human subject. Beyond that, it would need to satisfy regulators that they can bring some sort of therapeutic benefit.
But it is possible the company is further along with these objectives than it chose to reveal today. Musk stated several times throughout that the main motivation for the event was for recruiting purposes, as Neuralink looks to build up its team and drive the technology forward.
"It has tremendous potential, and we hope to have this in a human patient by the end of next year."
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