Elon Musk reckons his Neuralink brain implant is much more than a medical device--that one day it will drive a symbiosis between humans and artificial intelligence.
"Good morning! I'm Dr Benedict Egg and I'll be supervising your Neuralink insertion today. Do you have any questions?"
"Yes, Doc. Does it hurt? Will I feel it going in?"
"Hardly! We'll use a local anaesthesic and dose you up on painkillers before the surgical robot gets to work."
"Wait—did you say robot?!"
"Didn't you read any of the patient pamphlets? They were very glossy. No? Well, the surgery is fully automated. After all, a surgical robot is far steadier than these shaky old digits, ha! Here, take a look at the fellow:"
"Oh ok, he's kind of cute actually. That makes me feel much better. And I suppose it was signed off by Elon..."
"Of course! And his shiny exterior helps distract you from the fact that you're about to have invasive brain surgery! I get quite distracted myself sometimes, just marvelling at it."
"You'll be pleased to know the bot will only remove a coin-sized piece of skull twenty-three millimetres in diameter. It will insert the dangly electrodes into your brain without hitting any blood vessels. And the chip itself will sit on the outside of your brain, flush with your skull!"
"You're right, that is rather pleasing. Say, what was it like when you got yours done?"
"Me? Ha! No, I'm waiting to see the long term impact. I am a scientist at heart, after all. But one day, I'm going to sign the whole family up. Even our Dachshund will be linked. Ha ha!"
"Please shut up."
"Ok, look. Do you have any more questions about your Neuralink insertion? I have a lunch date with Mrs Hollandaise at twelve."
"Twelve o'clock! That's just over an hour away!"
"It is! The surgery takes less than one hour. Robots are terribly efficient like that. A few hours in recovery and you'll be home by dinnertime."
"Sounds swell. Ok, sod it. If it's good enough for Elon, it's good enough for me. Hook me up, Doc."
What is Neuralink?
Neuralink is a next generation brain-computer interface that's already proven to work in pigs. Pigs! They're basically human.
Now, before you freak out as much as I did, know that brain implants are not new. They've been used since the 1970s for replacing essential functions lost to stroke or head injury. And nowadays, neural implants are used to treat seizures, Parkinson's disease, and clinical depression.
So what's the big deal with Neuralink? It's next level stuff, is what it is.
Traditional implants can't transfer information to and from the brain via, say, a smartphone. They also have far fewer electrodes and are much bulkier than Neuralink.
Other brain-machine interface devices (now in clinical trials) are designed to restore movement and sensory perception. But they still have far fewer electrodes and their action is limited to the surface of the brain.
In contrast, Neuralink has these long and flexible electrode threads which pass deep into the brain for greater, targeted action.
So, in the same vein that Elon Musk reduced the cost of space travel (by inventing reusable rockets) and redesigned automobiles (by inventing self-driving electric vehicles), he's now overhauling the medical brain implant industry with an engineering-focused approach.
The Neuralink is going to be more than a medical device. Musk fantasizes about all kinds of lifestyle applications for this technology. More on this in a moment.
What is Neuralink For Initially?
Initially, Neuralink will help people with paralysis to regain their independence. They'll be able to control their computers and mobile devices with their minds—to send emails, browse the internet, and express creativity.
Over time, the Neuralink device will evolve and so, too, will its adaptive decoding algorithms as it examines user behaviour. This will create access to:
- More channels of communication with the brain
- A more diverse range of brain areas and functions
- New kinds of neural information
"It could, in principle, fix anything that's wrong with the brain." Elon Musk
Neuralink will then target neurological disorders and restoring lost functions and—eventually—change how we interact with each other and the world around us.
Is Neuralink Safe?
When you're talking about the brain, safety is paramount. Like any medical device, Neuralink must go through rigorous safety trials before it can be approved for use by the FDA.
At the time of writing, the Neuralink device is in pre-clinical trials, which means it's being tested in animals and not humans.
Check out the highlights of Elon's live Neuralink demonstration in pigs:
Uniquely in the brain implant business, Neuralink want to eliminate risk by revolutionising the surgical procedure in two ways.
Currently, brain implants are inserted under general anaesthesia which carries inherent risks like postoperative cognitive dysfunction.
The solution? To invent a fast and efficient Neurosurgical Robot which reduces the time under general anaesthesia. And one day, it will implant the device while you're awake, with the help of a light sedative.
Another risk of brain implants is their insertion causes bleeding in the brain. Neuralink overcomes this by:
- Using electrodes just microns thick, inserted with a needle the width of a neuron.
- Inserting the electrode threads precisely by the surgical bot to avoid damaging blood vessels.
All of these engineered improvements give Neuralink a distinct safety edge.
When Can I Get a Neuralink?
If you suffer from any of the aforementioned afflictions, then Neuralink could become available to you within the next few years. Or sooner, if you're courageous enough take part in their human clinical trials.
At the launch, Neuralink's CEO, Max Hodak, said the first patients to receive the implant will be quadriplegics with spinal cord injuries. They will receive four chips that connect up to 4,000 neurons. Musk predicted that will happen sometime in 2021.
What Will Neuralink Do For Me?
But what about the lifestyle applications? When can we stream music to our minds? When can we play VR games with full immersion? When can evil hackers rape our brains?
In time, is the answer. It will be many years before we see everyday folk signing up for Neuralink. And Musk assures us we'll definitely see it coming.
But why is he so keen to create this human-AI symbiosis?
Elon's main concern is that AI will surpasses human intelligence in the 21st century. And if that happens, we'll be left for dust as a species.
Today's Neuralink, then, is a starting point for developing a high-bandwidth brain-machine interface that will allow us to compete with AI. Because if you can't beat them—join them.
"We can actually go along for the ride... and we can effectively have the option of merging with AI." Elon Musk
What would our lives look like then?
Ultimately, if it's a function of your brain or artificial intelligence, then we can speculate it's within our power to merge the two.
With a Neuralink (or one of its descendants) we could access the internet with our minds and download new languages or entire books, Matrix-style.
We could have telepathic phone calls and manipulate each other's thoughts. We could record our dreams and show them to our psychiatrists.
We could save, replay and upload our conscious and unconscious experiences to the cloud.
"[With Neuralink] you could potentially download [memories] into a robot body." Elon Musk
The Ethical Implications of NeuraLink
However, not everyone is sold on the idea.
Some ethicists point out it will infringe on the nature of being human, which certainly ruffles some religious feathers.
Others say that individuals with Neuralink will experience personality and identity shifts, being able to think faster and more creatively, which will have untold consequences on their emotions and behaviours.
Another concern relates to privacy. As pseudo-cyborgs, we rely on our phones and computers to function in everyday life. And our internet searches and social profiles expose a lot of private information channelled via these digital extensions.
When Neuralink makes us cyborgs for real, there will be no conscious filter anymore. We'll be hooked-in to the digital world 24/7 via our thoughts and experiences.
So what happens when our minds are encoded into digital form and registered with corporations who want to advertise to us, or governments who want to monitor us for homicidal inklings?
There's a lot to unpack there and I'm sure we'll see this theme coming up in science fiction more often as it becomes more likely.
Hypothetically, the sky's the limit for Neuralink. And you know us humans. If we can do something exciting with technology, we probably will.
So perhaps the real question isn't: what can you do with a Neuralink? It's what should you do with a Neuralink, lodged omnipotently inside your head?