Elon Musk is known for his enthusiasm when it comes to planning bizarre futures, from fantasizing about bringing rockets on Mars, electric robot cars paving their way underground, to being able to control machines through our minds, the world created in his head requires quite a great degree of foresight to become reality.
Now imagine having the ability to control machines merely with our brains? The idea might not be as half-baked as we think.
Keeping this wild notion in mind, Musk launches Neuralink, a neural tech company, in 2016, the primary idea behind the platform being to achieve a symbiosis with artificial intelligence and creating a technology that enables merging with AI.
“I created [Neuralink] specifically to address the A.I. symbiosis problem, which I think is an existential threat”
- Elon Musk
In simple terms, we can say that Neuralink is a device that can be surgically implanted into our brain through which we will be able to interact with and control machines.
It will also aid in examining the brain’s electrical signals and figuring out solutions that can aid in curing several medical issues.
The company was co-founded by Musk, who is also the founder of the leading Tesla and the private aerospace platform SpaceX. The company’s President and cofounder is Max Hodak, who holds a biomedical engineering degree from Duke and is also the co-founder of Transcriptic and MyFit.
The platform’s initial goal was to aid the people having paralysis in reclaiming their independence by possessing control of computers and mobile devices.
Neuralink’s ambitious plan of linking the brain with machines is not exactly an abstract idea anymore. At the beginning of February 2021, the platform claimed to have successfully tested out the prototype of its brain linkup on a monkey. As per Elon Musk, a monkey having the device implanted in his brain can actually play video games through the linkup, without having to touch the screen or controller. He also added that the monkey looked quite normal and content as he played.
Basically, a chip - rather, an N1, 4mm-square chip, is implanted into the skull. Fastened to this chip are sleek wires that reach out into the brain. These threads are placed near integral brain parts and have the ability to identify messages as they get transmitted between neurons, keep track of every impulse and recording each impulse, and triggering their own.
The platform states that the N1 chip can connect around 1,000 varying brain cells, and a patient can have around 10 N1 chips inserted.
The chips are wirelessly connected onto a wearable device that is hooked around the ear of the user, resembling a hearing aid, and containing a Bluetooth battery and radio.
As per Neuralink, the initial devices will be implanted through traditional neurosurgery, yet ultimately the chips would be added securely and virtually painlessly via small incisions carried out in the hands of a robot surgeon.
“A.I. does not need to hate us to destroy us. We would roll over an anthill that’s in the way of a road. You don’t hate ants. You’re just building a road... And that the potential for intelligence in computers is far greater than in biology.”
- Elon Musk to New York Times
The main aim of Neuralink is to insert wireless brain-computer interfaces in the brain to aid in curing neurological conditions such as Alzheimer's, dementia, and spinal cord injuries and eventually integrate humankind with artificial intelligence.
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Eventually, this would clear the path for allowing humans to be able to control machines like computers through only their thoughts. In the long term, the platform aims at developing a “tertiary level” brain that would be merged with artificial intelligence.
In August 2020 Elon Musk initiated a revelation in which he stated that the platform had developed a self-contained neural implant. Through this implant, the possibility of wirelessly transmitting detailed brain activity can be possible, that too in the absence of external hardware.
This is made possible through a brain-computer interface (BCI) system, which is a direct communication pathway between a brain and an external device.
Neuralink has been invested in this technology since the time of its establishment. Being able to enable reading and writing through the million brain neurons and converting human thoughts into computer commands as well as vice versa has been the ambition of the platform.
In order to demonstrate an example for this, Musk practiced it on pigs, calling it the “three little pigs demo”. The neural implant was performed on a pig named “Gertrude”, with the brain activity depicted upon a screen. Although initially Gertrude needed a bit of coaxing and cajoling to appear in front of the camera, yet ultimately she loosened up and started sniffing straws and eating off a stool. This activity was shown on a graph tracking her neural activity.
In above presentation made by Musk in July, two neuroscientists were spoken to by Business Insider, namely Andrew Hires, an assistant neurobiology professor at the University of California, and Imperial College London’s Dr. Rylie Green. The two presented varying opinions on how Neuralink had impacted existing technologies in three critical ways :
The wires on Neuralink's proposed device as per Andrew Hires are floppy and flexible owing to which they add a unique touch. Every wire is a little thinner as compared to human hair and is equipped with electrodes that can both identify and spur brain activity.
Considering the high degree of damage that stiff wires in brains induce since the brain can shift around. A living brain is pretty soft, - “ softer than jello” as quoted by Hires.
Hence floppy wires such as the ones proposed by Neuralink can prove to be a better alternative for devices that are going to spend an extended period of time being embedded inside someone’s brain since these wires have lesser chances of damaging or inflaming the tissue.
On the contrary, he also emphasized that while this may not exactly be a new technology yet it is fresh enough that we may not be aware of how long these wires may last, owing to which there are chances that they might turn out to be less flexible, reliable and may break.
Dr. Rylie Green pointed out that the material applied for developing the threads is actually a pretty regularly adopted polymer in this field, also adding that the electrodes developed with gold are rather a "research-level technology," instead of being prepared to be put into the brains of people.
A considerable issue with floppy wires is that they might prove to be difficult to embed into the brain to resolve which Neuralink introduced a fresh solution. The probes being infused inside the brain would be through a device that resembles a sewing machine, adopting a stiff needle for arranging the threads in their place around 1 millimeter inside the brain’s outer surface.
Hires believed that the concept of the sewing machine in this context was fresh and a substantial innovation because of how difficult performing these insertions manually is.
What intrigued Hires the most was the feature that neutralizes the jiggling around of the human brain caused by the heartbeat and breathing, the heartbeat which generally triggers the movement of the brain.
The feature is called online motion correction, and works by making a video of the blood vessels of the brain underneath a microscope and later adopting a robot for moving alongside the blood vessels.
One of the most significant weapons Neuralink is equipped with is a chip that examines the brain activity being gathered by the electrodes.
Hires emphasizes that owing to the electrical signals being highly small, issues are encountered in securing electrical signals from the brain since the more they travel downward a sleek wire the greater the chances grow of them getting awry owing to noises which prompt us to wish that the signal is amplified or digitized as near the source as it can be.
He added that Neuralink’s chip looks exceptional and holds the potential to record additional places with a greater level of precision. He took the example of a TV, being upgraded from SD (Standard Definition) to HD.
Speaking of examples, check out some AI Examples through this blog.
Meanwhile for Dr. Green, the most intriguing factor of Neuralink isn’t the three technologies but rather the outcome of them being brought together. Having been in development for a long time, she added that it is refreshing to observe each of them together in a single device.
Neuralink is bustling with technology, keeping the advanced tech at the heart of its operations. We have tried to highlight the core of the platform and its applied technologies in this blog and we hope that we have been able to give you an idea about the role technology has played in Neuralink.
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