Last week, eccentric entrepreneur Elon Musk stood in front of a blue curtain, cameras set to livestream, and unveiled technology that he said was “like a Fitbit in your skull.”
The performance — ruthlessly dissected online — set out the latest advances from Neuralink, his Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) project that has been running since 2016.
The idea is to use hyper-precise surgical robots to implant microscopic electrode threads into a brain, essentially giving people powers they could only ever have dreamed of. We’re talking a cure for paralysis, blindness and depression, and the ability to stream music directly into your head, or store and archive memories.
It’s unclear how seriously we should take these claims. And Musk’ projects do have a track record for blowing hot air — how long before those underground tunnels revolutionise urban transport?
But if it is all real — should we be scared, or excited?
Elon Musk. Photo on The Entrepreneur
The live-streamed Neuralink demonstration centred around three pigs.
One, Gertrude, had spent months with the coin-sized interface implanted. Another had the implant put in and removed, and the final pig had not been touched.
As Gertrude’s snout reached the ground, sniffing around and munching on floor snacks, bleeps and bloops pinged out to show the neural readings from the 1,000 electrodes implanted in her brain. This was the BCI at work and a show of how the technology could soon progress.
While it’s not a groundbreaking idea to shove a computer in someone’s head — researchers have successfully implanted electrodes into a paralysed monkey’s brain to help it walk again — Neuralink is pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. The current iteration has thousands of nodes and data points, but Musk says the plan is to ramp this up by 1,000 or 10,000 times, to a staggering 10 million electrodes in the brain. Scarily, the tech would have to be charged up every night whilst people are sleeping.
“Pigs are actually quite similar to people,” Musk said during the question and answer session, as reported in CNN. “If we’re going to figure out things for people, then pigs are a good choice.
“If the device is lasting in the pig, as it lasted in there for two months and going strong, then that’s a good sign the device is robust for people.”
One of BCI’s biggest selling points is the tech’s potential impact on human wellbeing.
If you accept that everything the brain experiences is ultimately the result of electrical impulses, and that carefully placed electrodes could read — and control — these impulses, you could address any issue people currently face.
You could identify and stop depression. You could use BCI for people who are paralysed, and whose brains do not send the necessary signals to their limbs. You could cure deafness and blindness by correcting broken pathways. Maybe even help people be happy.
For people with terrifying, degenerative diseases, the thought of a tech-related solution is a liberation. So it goes with Dr Peter Scott-Morgan, whose life was recently documented in a Channel 4 documentary, and planned to outflank his advancing multiple sclerosis by integrating his body with technology and turning himself into a ‘cyborg’.
Dr. Peter Scott-Morgan, the ‘Human Cyborg’. Photo on Radio Times
But this transhumanist edge goes much further than helping humans with illnesses recover to a baseline position of health.
Musk has long said that he thinks one of the biggest threats to humanity is from Artificial Intelligence (AI), something he classifies as a bigger risk to human survival than nuclear weapons.
Neuralink and other BCI tech would therefore keep humanity on a level playing field with AI. It could give us the ‘faster than speech communication’, via telepathy, which we may need to survive. Being able to store your memories as a backup, or stream information directly into your head, the thinking goes, could have serious implications for our species’ survival.
In other words, it’s Black Mirror territory.
But is this larger aim, fundamentally changing what it means to be human, not something to be wary of? Particularly when it’s via a computer in your head?
“Who and what is Neuralink’s BCI really for, and how does that change where the technology is headed,” one comment piece in the magazine Slate reads, adding that Neuralink’s medical applications appear to be a “thinly veiled front for transhumanist dreams.”
Take Facebook. The tech giant is also working on BCIs, and for all its talk about helping patients with neurological damage speak again, we know just how fundamental data collection is to Facebook’s business model. You can only imagine how much data you could get from someone willing to implant a Bluetooth computer in their head.
Would Neuralink do something similar? Would we become even bigger targets for advertising or neuro-linguistic manipulation?
Who knows. And maybe complete data control is a worthwhile trade for someone who is unable to walk. But these very much seem like conversations we need to be having.
Photo by Natasha Connell on Unsplash
May not be realistic
On top of this, MIT Review describes Musk’s work with Neuralink as “neuroscience theatre”, making promises that will be hard to keep.
One of the biggest issues is that having tiny electrode wires that can survive in the brain for a decade may be too difficult.
Because of this and related issues, MIT review says that the idea behind the launch was not to showcase anything particularly groundbreaking from Neuralink, but instead stir up excitement and to recruit engineers to the company.
“Despite the long list of medical applications Musk presented, Neuralink didn’t show it’s ready to commit to any one of them.
During the event, the company did not disclose plans to start a clinical trial, a surprise to those who believed that would be its next logical step,” the MIT story reads.