What if we could record and download memories? What if we were able to communicate using telepathy and control our devices with only our thoughts? How close are we to making superhuman abilities a reality? Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk has recently revealed his latest brain chip project, which seems to answer all these questions. As the field of artificial intelligence expands, our world comes closer to achieving once thought to be unsurmountable feats.
On August 28, 2020, Musk revealed his company’s, Neuralink, launch of a new brain chip through a live demonstration. Neuralink intends to “solve important brain and spine problems with a seamlessly implanted device,” Musk said in the demonstration. Memory and hearing loss, depression, anxiety, dementia, blindness, paralysis, seizures, and strokes are some of the issues that the Neuralink device addresses. According to Musk, the brain chip “could, in principle, fix anything that’s wrong with the brain.”
Musk founded Neuralink in 2016. Since then, he has continuously updated the brain chip designs. Last summer, Neuralink’s device included an external part attached behind the ear. Musk revealed that during testing this model enabled a monkey to control a computer with its brain as it allowed the monkey’s “symbiosis with artificial intelligence.” This particular model was expected to be tested on humans by the end of 2020, but this did not occur. Instead, Neuralink developed a simpler design. This year, the updated chip is small, circular, and is inserted directly into the brain with no visible attachments on the surface of the head, and no long wires. The chip is “about the size of a large coin [and] replaces a piece of the skull,” said Musk. He assimilated the device to “a Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires.”
Through the brain chip, Neuralink can monitor body temperatures, pressures, and even detect heart attacks and strokes. It charges inductively overnight through a cap placed on the head during sleep. The process of implanting the device does not require general anesthesia, takes less than an hour, and can be done with the use of surgical robots, also crafted by the Neuralink team. Besides Neuralink, current technology allowing for a similar reading of brain signals involves the attachment of wires and boxes. The additional heavy and constricting equipment must remain on the head and be operated by a medical expert. Thus, Neuralink provides a simpler and more accessible, yet slightly invasive, method of recording brain signals.
During the live demonstration, Musk explained that Neuralink is testing the brain chip on three pigs named Joyce, Dorothy, and Gertrude. The three pigs received different courses of treatment. Joyce, representing the control group, did not have a chip inserted. Dorothy had a chip inserted and removed to test the reversibility of the chip, accounting for the possible removal or upgrade of the chip in Neuralink patients. Musk expects several versions of the chip to become available over time with technology and engineering advances. Thus, Neuralink is ensuring the chips can be seamlessly replaced without harming patients. Musk also revealed that Dorothy remained normal and healthy, even after the removal of the Neuralink chip.
Lastly, Neuralink inserted the chip inside Gertrude and it successfully recorded her brain signals. Her neural activity was recorded live while she was sniffing straw. Musk aims to use these recordings of brain activity to decode the signals of the brain. In turn, the data presented by the signals has the potential to cure diseases and, in the future, allow for telepathy and memory recording.
Neuralink is currently working on getting approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to begin testing on humans. During the presentation, Musk suggested the Neuralink chip could be ready to be implanted inside a human patient as early as 2021.
When asked about concerns regarding the newest Neuralink product, UTM Psychology Professor Jacob Ellegood said the Neuralink device is invasive, could require many unnecessary brain surgeries due to constant updates, and may not allow for accurate MRI scans.
Since Professor Ellegood’s research focuses on autism in mice, he performs many MRI scans and believes that studies on animals like mice and pigs can be transferrable to humans. While there are alternative brain imaging devices, such as CT scans, Ellegood believes they do not provide the same contrast and resolution as MRI scans. Moreover, even if the Neuralink chip is not magnetic, signals around the chip area in the brain would still be disrupted and a black void would appear on the scan—similar to the effect of braces on an MRI signal. Ellegood also notes it is critical for the device to account for the brain’s natural environment that may be corrosive to the chip over time.
Professor Ellegood believes more research is needed on AI-driven brain chips, and that Musk’s timeline may be too optimistic. To Ellegood, Musk is “years and years away from getting to some of the aspects [he’s presenting].” Since experts are still studying the brain and its functions, perhaps it is not currently plausible for implanted technology such as Neuralink’s chip to answer all these questions. However, while advanced AI technology and telepathy may seem far-fetched, it is now a possible route in the future. “It’s going to be decades before [Musk] gets to some of what he wants to do but it is still helpful that he is doing it,” Ellegood said.
Professor Ellegood believes that the power of brain chips like Neuralink lies in the improvement of neurological and physiological diseases, instead of the enhancement of daily life with “superhuman abilities.” He thinks that the potential to help cure spinal cord injuries, Parkinson’s tremors, and seizure disorders is viable and could be expanded to ideas like wireless cochlear implants. “The actual neuroscience that [Musk] is proposing is not necessarily new […] recording neurons in the brain has been done for a while,” said Ellegood. “The new technology and deep learning are where the innovation is going to be.”
Elon Musk has many ambitious goals, projects, and ideas that have spurred technology and engineering advances worldwide. Musk has been awarded numerous entrepreneur and Innovator of the Year awards and continues to expand on his inventions. His projects include Tesla, Space X, Hyperloop Alpha, The Boring Company, SolarCity and, most recently, Neuralink. Musk’s ambition and his companies’ research has sparked people’s interest worldwide. Through the technological advancements, many are identifying ways to benefit society and improve living conditions. As Elon Musk wirelessly connects our brains with technology, allowing for the treatment of brain injury and trauma, the quality of life of people across the world can be improved.
The plausible capability of Neuralink’s chip may take years to come; however, its creation and resulting research allows scientists and engineers worldwide to gain a comprehensive understanding of the brain. Perhaps in a few years, a brain chip will become like our phones, laptops, and other devices—a new normal.