What to know about Neuralink, Elon Musk’s Brain-Computer Interface Project


Elon Musk in 2017.

Elon Musk in 2017.
Photo: Mark break (Getty Images)

Elon Musk is set to make an announcement on Friday, August 28, about Neuralink, a company that designs brain-computer interface technology. It sounds like science fiction, but research in this area has made rapid progress in recent years, although we are still far from being able to send emails with our brains. Unlike Musk’s other well-known ventures, SpaceX and Tesla, however, will be much more limited in terms of how fast Neuralink can innovate and push consumer products. Here you should know about the project, what is theoretically possible, how much doubt you should have, and who is designing brain-computer interfaces.

Announced by Elon Musk in 2017, Neuralunk will attempt to use “high-high-bandwidth brain-machine interfaces” to connect human brains and computers, or to connect human brains to computers via implantable brain chips.

First, Neuralink’s brain-machine interface Can be used to treat brain disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, and depression. They can also be used in combination with advanced assistive devices, in which a person’s thoughts can control prostheses or other prostheses. However, Musk’s ultimate vision must be achieved, however, this technique Allows future humans to control external devices from their brains, transmit ideas directly to another person’s brain, and even increase cognitive abilities, such as enhanced intelligence and memory.

More conceptually, Musk has deployed Neuralink as a possible way for humanity to stop an AI apocalypse, saying that technology can help us achieve “a kind of symbiosis with artificial intelligence” Is, “as he said when the project was Launched three years ago. Extending our puny minds, he argued, we would stand toe-to-toe with our advanced technologies, in a way that “can’t beat them, join them with an ‘M’ to solve the pending problem.” Criticism Back in 2017.

This idea is certainly not new. Science fiction has been at the top of it for decades, whether it was William Gibson’s skipper, Ian Banks’s Nerve lace, Of the matrix Brain plugs, or any speculative vision in which human minds come directly with the digital realm.

So it all sounds very appealing – and it is – but here’s the necessary bucket of cold water: Unlike electric cars or rockets, the brain-computer interface is considered a medical device, which means that the company has to get Must pass through appropriate regulatory channels. Its uses and products have been approved for use in humans, including consent from the US Food and Drug Administration.

Like other pharmaceutical and medical device developers, whether public or private, Neuralink will have to demonstrate the safety and efficacy of its products, usually through careful and time-consuming clinical trials. Given that the company wants to impose chips in people’s brains — including those of perfectly healthy people — it will present some unique challenges, including timelines that can be measured in decades. Neuralink will also be constrained by the fact that some of its more future offerings will be considered an enhancement, not a medical one, which will undoubtedly further complicate regulatory approvals.

Despite these challenges, scientists have attempted to turn science fiction into reality over the years. Elon Musk may attract the most media attention, but not so many famous researchers in this field are making breathless progress, which we might actually have.

Last year, a team of neuroscientists from Columbia University Translated brain waves in recognized speech, While a team from the University of California San Francisco formed Virtual vocal tract Able to simulate mechanical aspects of oral communication by directly tapping into the human brain. In 2016, a brain transplant allowed an Empty to be used to transfer his thoughts Individual fingers Of a prosthetic hand. Brain-machine interface Also used to make Mind controlled robot exoskeleton And Restore touch And Partial motor function Some interesting works have also been done to mediate people with spinal injury. Brain-to-brain communication In humans, though there are still early days.

Working in inhuman animals has also yielded good results. Notable examples include a wireless brain-machine interface That allowed a monkey Control wheelchairs With his brain and a brain transplant that enables monkeys Type 12 words in a minute Using only his ideas.

There is hardly any temper of musk in this world, at least for now. What is potentially different is the scale, funding, and intent of the neuron mission itself, not to mention the charismatic nature of Elon Musk himself. It said, there are some rival projects outside academics, in which similar efforts have been launched Facebook (Which recently Bought Neural interface startup Ctrl-labs in one transaction Worth Somewhere between $ 500 million and $ 1 billion); Kernels (A $ 100 million project started by Braintree founder Brian Johnson); And the American government Darpa, Which has devoted $ 65 million to its effort. Musk, it appears, is hardly the only person throwing big money at such an initiative, and it remains to be seen whether Neuralink seems to be an increasingly competitive place.

The Neuralink system will employ “neural lace” technologies (a clear hat tip to author Ian Banks) – possibly a method for using brain implants, or a type of implantable mesh, external to the “direct cortical interface” Connects the brain with the computer. As The Wall Street Journal Reported Back in 2017.

As of 2019, $ 158 million has been invested in the project, including $ 100 million from Mr. Musk, Report new York Times. The company already employs 90 people and plans to include a neurosurgeon at Stanford University and possibly elsewhere.

Neuralink will take an incremental approach to the problem, starting with the treatment of brain disorders and then scaling up to more growth-minded applications. Promoting the bandwidth of information emanating from the brain will be important for any progress. This would almost certainly involve wireless brain transplantation (as opposed to non-invasive techniques such as EEG), which would require surgery and flexible, durable, biochemical components.

Musk revealed further details of the neurlink approach during a live-stream in July 2019 Submission At the California Academy of Science. Their solution, as also evident in the company White papershall include Sewing machine robot, Which a surgeon would use to conduct ultra-thread threads or probes into a person’s brain. Only 5 to 6 nanometers wide, these threads will be thinner than human hair.

These threads will connect to the chips in the skull, such as pearl wire. As noted in the whitepaper, the machine will be able to implant six threads or 192 electrodes per minute. The Neuralink team has already performed “rapid implantation of 96 polymer threads, 32 electrodes according to the paper, each thread for a total of 3,072 electrodes”. Brain surgery will still be required, but Neuralink President Max Hodak has completed the work being done by the lasers as a way to avoid mechanical drilling, accordingly To the New York Times.

Neuralink has already demonstrated a system capable of reading information from 1,500 implanted electrodes, although in mice. Nevertheless, it is 15 times better than current systems used on humans.

“It’s impressive to see how quickly they’ve come to this point, and it will be interesting to see how far they get,” wrote Andrew Jackson, professor at Newcastle University, professor of neural interfaces in an email. One of the attempts to “read the electrical activity of a large number of their brain cells”. The Neuralink approach is to insert several flexible polymer threads into the brain using a type of sewing machine. The threads are attached to an electronic package implanted under the skin. “

Jackson described other notable approaches involving electronics on small silicon needles, including Neuropixel probe Developed by Tim Harris from the Nelia Research Campus at Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The $ 5.5 million collaboration has already produced probes capable of simultaneously recording more than 700 neurons. Jackson also pointed to a concept called “Nerve dust, ”In which many small, wireless implants are distributed throughout the brain.

“Only time will tell if Elon has backed the right horse,” Jackson said. “One thing it shows is the ability to advance the field of neural interfaces for business investment. Until some time ago, neuroscientists were using some old-fashioned instruments to record from the brain, so it is great to see such interest and investment from Silicon Valley. “

Neuralink was supposed to start testing on human subjects by now, but it did not. It is possible that the company was overly ambitious with its deadline, or that it was denied expected approval from the US Food and Drug Administration, but we do not really know. The company has expressed interest in opening itself Animal testing facility In San Francisco, the need for ongoing experimentation with animal models was highlighted.

Kevin Warwick, an expert on brain-machine interfaces from Coventry and Reading Universities, prefers that Neuralink is using thin polymer probes, and not just because they are flexible.

“This is great because different patterns of multiple electrodes can be fabricated. It should also help with mechanical issues, as they are unlikely to break, ”he said in an email. “The problem is how to put it into the brain, for which they have designed a robot.”

Warwick states that the whitepaper contains a “hand waving” description of the robot, which is regrettable, as it is “important to the whole method”. “If the robot can do what they say it can do, then we will be able to place multiple electrodes in multiple sites. But to me, this is the part that needs to be proven – can they insert such polymer probes reliably, safely, accurately into the brain, and show that the robot works on the human brain The “

Looking ahead, the Neuralink team – and someone else working on the neural interface device – will need to overcome a number of major challenges, including the aggressive nature of the technology, developing a universal way to map brain signals (each The system will have to learn ideological solutions to measure each individual’s brain), and the necessary tests (both in non-animals and people) in a safe, ethical, and effective manner.

They also have to deal with potentially unexpected problems, such as excessive heat generated by implants or rapid obsolescence of implanted devices. Crucially, researchers have to determine if all the data being transferred out of the brain can actually be applied to something useful and in a way that attracts commercial interest. We still do not know much about the human brain and how it works, so it can be a stretch to assume that these current strategies will work as intended.

We are keen to hear Musk’s announcement on August 28 and find out what progress Built in the past year. But we are not ready to complete this project yet, as we should expect slow and incremental updates, Given the complex nature of the effort.

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