What is Neuralink?
On August 28th, 2020, Neuralink held its first public demo. It was live-streamed on Youtube and Neuralink’s website. The event was not only heavily advertised but also highly anticipated by the tech and medical industry. A large monitor showed a pigs’ brain activity, which shook the audience as they had never seen anything like it. Previously, the most common forms of brain activity imaging were non-invasive methods like fMRIs (functional magnetic resonance imaging) and EEGs (electroencephalography). These processes are time and resource intensive while also not providing a constant reading. Furthermore, there has never been an intersection – at this level – between tech and medicine. The closest we had ever seen was wearable tech with companies like Fitbit, Garmin and Apple.
Soon after, Musk and the rest of Neuralink’s panel held a Q&A session where they answered a range of questions, from ‘what are the width of the electrodes?’ to ‘can we store our memories?’. Although the latter question may sound unreasonable or far-fetched, it is not as impossible as it initially seems.
Since the early 2000s, Musk has been known for bold, outlandish and futuristic innovations in the tech space but in 2016, he decided to go a different route: medical technology (MedTech).
Musk assembled a team of leading engineers, neuroscientists, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and biomedical specialists to create what would become Neuralink. The company’s main vision is to complete AI and human symbiosis. Musk wants to push the boundaries of communication between humans as quite a large percentage of ideas are lost when converted to words.
The start-up has already built a chip containing over 3000 electrodes, distributed across 96 threads. These electrodes can detect and stimulate brain activity. They also created a robot which inserts six threads per minute. Each thread has 32 electrodes which are injected into the brain. The robot has micron precision and can detect where to insert the threads after a rigorous surface scan. Furthermore, the threads can record the brain’s surface vasculature- the system of veins, arteries and other blood vessels within the brain. This is important because every brain is different; with a “map” of the brain’s muscles, the device can accurately target neurons and the nervous system. The chip, on the other hand, with dimensions of only 23 mm x 18.5 mm x 2 mm is a “low-power onboard amplifier and digitizer”. The small form is helpful when placing it in the cranium as a larger chip would require even more invasive surgery.
The data transfer rate of the chip is comparable to a USB-C cable, which makes Neuralink an unprecedented innovation in the medical industry. The last time chips (implanted in humans) were implanted on this scale, the transfer rate was half when compared to the prototype chip from Neuralink. Not only are the data transfer rates impressive, but the package density and scalability are key scientific advancements which open Neuralink up to a vast number of applications, both in the tech and the medical industry.
Applications of Neuralink
Neuralink’s progression can be divided into 3 phases:
Phase 1: Neuroprosthetic Applications
In the live stream, Musk emphasized that the current scope of the chips are limited to treating patients with severe spinal injuries. The chip will allow neurologists to monitor the brain and understand it better. Not only will they be able to stimulate the brain from within, but they will also gain a better insight into how the brain reacts to certain medications/ treatments. Felix Deku, the Director of Microfabrication at the University of Texas and others stated that the biggest challenge was to make sure the chips survived in the brain’s “highly corrosive” environment. The brain is surrounded by cerebrospinal fluid, which consists of large amounts of chloride. If metals are exposed to chloride for prolonged periods, they begin to suffer from pitting – a form of localised corrosion that leads to the creation of small holes.
The team is currently aiming for a lifespan spanning decades for a single chip, and Musk wants to start human trials in 2020. They will first only include patients with neural damage in hopes to monitor and mitigate their illness. The company hopes to boost physical motion in these patients using neural stimuli from the chips. All the panellists were very confident that this could happen soon.
Phase 2: Internet of Things Applications
Internet of Things (IoT) is the general term given to the large network of devices working seamlessly together around us making our lives easier. This phase is mainly for commercial uses like connecting your brain to your phone or your refrigerator! The possibilities for collaboration in the tech space are endless, making it a lucrative space as soon as this said collaboration opens. Tech behemoths like Google, Apple and Amazon would likely be the first to capitalize on the technology on a large commercial scale, but it would still take decades to bring the price down to affordable levels due to highly specialised equipment, materials and quality checks. Popular commercial applications that spring to mind (no pun intended) are ‘in-brain’ language translators, social media and appliance controllers. Even though this sounds fantastic, it raises the question of whether humanity will lose the ‘human touch’?
Phase 3: AI-human Symbiosis
Joe Rogan, a comedian and famous podcaster, interviewed Elon Musk in May 2020 to talk about his newborn, XÆA-12, and more importantly, Neuralink. He boldly stated that there is a very real probability that humanity will never die. If we can devise a way to store information in the brain as a series of 1s and 0s, we can also store them outside the body. Disregarding the size of the data, if everyone in the world stores their memories and knowledge on the cloud, they could, theoretically, download it onto another host once they die. This process can be done as simply as downloading a PDF from the internet; feelings, knowledge, emotions are the things which distinguish us. This is essentially overwriting a new brain with older information. This sounds like a plot straight out of a science fiction book, but it can become our reality much sooner than we think.
Dangers of Neuralink
Before the launch of Neuralink, we will have to consider the possible dangers:
The distribution of data in MEDCs is a rising concern, with Big Data becoming a buzzword on many news channels. We have already seen the aftermath of illegal data breaches with Facebook (the Cambridge Analytica scandal), which now makes a consumer think about what they want to put onto the internet. Data from one’s brain could be sold to companies for profitable business deals which directly violate doctor-patient confidentiality. Possible solutions for this includes- storing such data in a completely disconnected and off-grid data storage system with high-level security clearances required to uphold privacy of the patients.
Continuing from the previous point, hackers could try to override safety protocols set by the company. In that case, what is the most damage they can do? Hackers could target patients or worse, carry out mass biological attacks on a whole population. It is not far from reality as many current technologies (St Jude’s pacemaker, Medfusion Drug Infusion Pumps, etc.) are under scrutiny as people have identified ways of breaching security protocols. Unfortunately, if multiple attacks are successful, it would put a serious dent in the credibility of these devices, thus hindering their progress.
Once Neuralink goes commercial, what stops organizations from using these devices to mass control their population? There is a growing concern over the fading of democracy and using these chips for torture by clandestine organizations. We are already seeing technology being used by autocracies as mass control tactics. Countries like China use facial recognition, curbing internet usage and large scale blocking of websites to limit freedom of speech. What is stopping them from using Neuralink to control the minds of individuals? Strict terms and conditions must be drafted with thorough and regular checks by the company for this to prevent this. These could include but not limited to: thorough usage checks by Neuralink, special task forces in each country/ bloc to monitor fair usage, remote access only allowed to Neuralink headquarters which would remove any outside access.
Furthermore, Neuralink’s technology could potentially allow governments to streamline undercover unethical human experiments such as Project MKUltra (a CIA operation within the USA focused on controlling minds using psychedelic drugs like LSD) and/ or warrantless surveillance. An “experiment” similar to Project MKUltra could ultimately publicly destroy Nueralink’s image due to security concerns, but more importantly, humanitarian concerns. It would be in violation of multiple international and domestic laws which would prove impossible to fight against. Hence, it is in the company’s interest to make sure nothing like this happens.
In a possible future, where humans can upload their memories/ knowledge, it would be very easy to implement a self-learning AI which could train itself with petabytes of data. This AI would soon become a general AI, which can think and imagine better than a human, making humans possibly redundant. This level of human extinction must be thought about for laws and regulations to be written.
Does humanity need Neuralink?
There are two sides to this argument, one could argue that the chips are unnatural and hinder the ‘natural’ progression of humanity, but one could also say that humans need these chips to survive our inevitable fate.We all must make a choice on which side of the aisle we stand: the ‘survivalist’ or the ‘natural’. Our collective decision will determine how this technology will be perceived going forward. Surely, everyone can agree that treating paralysed patients is beneficial. The same cannot be said about uploading our memories to a cloud. The ‘personalisation’ of a person and the essence of humans are removed. Not only will we become less ‘human’ but we might never be the same – frozen in time. This is just the start of a new phase in humanity, one which we have been witnessing since the 70s in Hollywood. Do we want to go along with it, or should we oppose the seemingly inevitable?