Author: Michael Helde
From: Washington, USA
Close your eyes. Imagine a future in which everybody has a device implanted in their brain. This device allows you to communicate non-verbally with your friends and family (telepathy), enhance your cognition, and explore Virtual and Artificial Reality to play games and general entertainment. These are just some of the plethora of possibilities with this sort of technology, and some predict that these will be available within the next 10-20 years! A device such as this would be a Brain-Computer Interface (BCI), or what Elon Musk has called a Neuralink.
Elon Musk has recently surpassed Bill Gates becoming the second wealthiest person in the world. Musk has many business ventures including the following: Tesla, SpaceX, The Boring Company, Neuralink, OpenAI, SolarCity, and Hyperloop. Needless to say, Musk is an ambitious individual. He has invested a sizeable $100 million into Neuralink in 2019, three years after the company’s founding. While Neuralink’s mission statement on its website is, “creating the future of brain interfaces: building devices now that will help people with paralysis and inventing new technologies that will expand our abilities, our community, and our world,” Elon Musk has tweeted, “If you can’t beat em, join em Neuralink mission statement.” Here Musk is referring to his fear of Artificial Intelligence, and how he hopes to have a symbiosis with AI through the technology he is developing in Neuralink.
In this article, I will review some basic neurobiology, the potential short-term and long-term future of Neuralink, and some ending thoughts.
Some Basic Neurobiology
In order to have a surface-level understanding of challenges Neuralink faces and the science behind the technology, we must have a basic understanding of neurobiology or the biology of the brain. First, we will zoom in on a single pyramidal neuron.
Figure 1: The structure of a neuron
Let’s walk through how an action potential travels across a neuron using Figure 1 as a visualization. First, the neuron receives neurotransmitters from another neuron with its dendrite which sends a signal to the soma or cell body where it’s determined whether to send an electrical signal called an action potential down the neuron’s axon. The nucleus has to weigh in all the signals it’s receiving from the many dendrites. If there are enough input signals, the neuron fires the action potential down its axon where there are myelin sheaths that help transmit the electrical pulse faster (axons can be long). This electrical pulse causes neurotransmitters to be released across the synapse (the space between the pre-synaptic neuron’s axon and the post-synaptic neuron’s dendrite) which are received by the next neuron’s (or post-synaptic neuron’s) proteins to start the process all over again.
Using different methods, scientists can record the electrical activity of regions of neurons, and from this, recognize patterns and associate meaning to the graphs. For example, one such method is the patch clamp, which entails electrodes both recording and inputting current into a singular neuron.
Figure 2: Shows an N1 Implant where N1 stands for Neuralink 1.
Now that we understand some of the biology of the brain, we understand that the chips are recording neural activity and the device helps decipher these spikes and sends this message to a device wirelessly. Each of the four chips you see in Figure 2 contains hundreds of electrodes, each of which will consist of a mesh rather than a stiff array (see Figure 3).
Figure 3: On the left, a microelectrode array is shown which is stiff causing a risk of injury. On the right is Neuralink’s mesh electrode array which consists of tiny threads.
The Short-Term Future of Neuralink
One of Neuralink’s first goals is to use the N1 Implant to control iOS devices through this chip, which the company has said to hope to have a version of for clinical trials in 2020, which was admittedly wishful thinking. While initially the chip will be sewn in (due to its mesh-like properties) after the normal procedure of a surgery (anesthetics, etc.), Musk envisions that it will become a routine process, comparing it to Lasik (laser eye surgery).
The Long-Term Future of Neuralink
Musk has extensively reviewed the long-term future of Neuralink, partially to build excitement for the company, as the possibilities are very thrilling. Lex Fridman, an MIT AI scientist, has speculated about the future of Neuralink, breaking it down into eight sections: alleviate human suffering, consciousness, augmented reality, gaming, merging technology with biology, telepathy, immortality, and merging with AI.
Some have speculated that once Neuralink has an innovation, the company will grow exponentially, attracting the public and increasing the quantity and leading to more funding for innovation. This creates a positive feedback loop leading to a very successful future. However, it should be noted that this is an optimistic view.
As I have hopefully made clear, Elon Musk’s Neuralink company contains tons of potential. Scientists are developing neurotechnology rapidly, faster than what some may think. While some believe this is science fiction, others already fret over surveillance, hackers, or even advertisements. A field of research has been formed called neuroethics to study the implications of neuroscience, according to the International Neuroethics Society. If this doesn’t excite you for the future, I don’t know what will.
Author: Michael Helde
Michael Helde a high school junior in Washington. He has a wide range of interests including math, computer science, biology, and physics. He is currently doing research on computational neuroscience.
Neuroethics | Brain Initiative. Jay Churchill, braininitiative.nih.gov/brain-programs/neuroethics. Accessed 16 Dec. 2020.
Tan, Jack. “Neuralink — What the Future of a Brain-Computer Unfolds?” Medium, 3 Sept. 2020, medium.com/swlh/neuralink-what-the-future-of-a-brain-computer-unfolds-7a904afa30a.
Urban, Tim. “Neuralink and the Brain’s Magical Future.” Wait But Why, 21 Jan. 2020, waitbutwhy.com/2017/04/neuralink.html#part2.
New Atlas. “Elon Musk’s Neuralink Plans Its First Brain Chip Implants for next Year.” New Atlas, 4 Nov. 2019, newatlas.com/elon-musk-neuralink-brain-chips-2020/60627.
Regalado, Antonio. “Elon Musk’s Neuralink Is Neuroscience Theater.” MIT Technology Review, 30 Aug. 2020, www.technologyreview.com/2020/08/30/1007786/elon-musks-neuralink-demo-update-neuroscience-theater.