Neuralink: Merging Human Brain with the Machine
What is Neuralink and What the Recent Pig Trials Mean for The Future of Humanity and what major changes will it bring?
In their recent event live-streamed on YouTube, Elon Musk’s Brain-Machine Interface company Neuralink showcased the successful operation of their “brain implants” in pigs as a part of their animal trail and research program. The star of the event, a pig name Gertrude, gave the audience a perfect demonstration of how the Neuralink device works– by actually having one embedded inside her skull.
At the time of this event, Gertrude already had the device implanted in her brain for about two months. This Neuralink device was connected to the neurons in her brain that were, in turn, directly linked to her snout. This bridging between the device and the snout was ideal for the demonstration, as pigs have very strong olfactory senses, and a large part of their brain is dedicated to smell, with their snouts being particularly very sensitive.
As a result of this linkage, whenever Gertrude’s snout touched something, a series of disturbances were observed in what could be called a matrix of dots, accompanied by beeping noises.
These disturbance patterns indicated firing up of the neurons inside Gertrude’s brain, which demonstrated how the Neuralink can be used to read the responses of the brain to different actions.
In the same event, Elon Musk also unveiled Neuralink’s state-of-the-art robot for performing the implant surgeries. As of now, the machine is currently still in the development stage.
Elon Musk, in the presentation, announced that the company plans to make the surgical robot capable of performing completely automated, unassisted implants in under an hour. Once complete, this will be one of the most sophisticated computer-vision-and-artificial-intelligence-guided machines in the world, capable of performing intricate surgeries to a level of accuracy that is impossible for even the most trained human hands to achieve.
What is Neuralink?
Arguably Elon Musk’s most ambitious project yet, the Neuralink made its inception back in March 2017 as an implantable Brain-Machine Interface (BMI) device.
A BMI device is can be thought of as a bi-directional communication pathway between the brain and an external device such as a computer (that is capable of providing your brain with sensory inputs from the outside world), which in the layman’s terms can be defined as a link between the neurons of the brain and an external device, such as a computer (hence the name, Neuralink).
Now, the brain can be thought of as a collection of neurons. These neurons communicate with each other as well as other parts of the body via light electrical impulses. The BMI connects to the brain via electrodes, that are capable of both reading the electrical impulses in the neurons and “write” data into the brain by generating impulses externally. As a result, this allows the brain to communicate back and forth with the external computing or sensory device.
At the time of its initial announcement, the Neuralink’s first version comprised of a small module resting near the ear, coupled with wire-like thin electrodes going inside the brains.
The prototype exhibition showed the module working on a lab rat, reading its mind with around 1500 electrodes in its head.
Since then, Neuralink has undergone a massive design change, eliminating the clutter of the excess wirings to just a coin-sized device that can be directly implanted inside the brain and sits flush with the skull.
The device uses Bluetooth Low-Energy to connect to a companion smartphone app, which in a way interestingly makes your smartphone a part of your body.
According to Musk, the initial versions of the Neuralink as well as the research in the program will be directed at augmenting or repairing human cognitive or sensory-motor functions. This could be done by possibly reactivating the damaged neurons using electric impulses, or maybe augmenting artificial neuron behavior with the help of the device to replace the damaged neurons. Let us look at an example so we may better understand this.
Let’s consider the case of patients with, say, paraplegia, Alzheimer’s, or any other motor neuron disease(MND), where the sensory activity of the spinal cord of the patient is damaged to a point beyond repair. In such a situation, the Neuralink can act as a direct bridge between the brain and the organs, thus bypassing the need for the spinal cord. Imagine the situation when the patient wants to perform a task as a basis as moving or lifting their arm. Now generally, for someone with a damaged spinal cord, they would be unable to perform even the most basic motor functions such as lifting an arm as it would not be possible to relay the signal generated by the motor neuron in their brain to the arm.
However, now that the person has a Neuralink device implanted in their brain, this device will pick up the signal from the motor neuron, and relay it to another device at the base of the spinal cord that will directly send the response to the arm, thus allowing the patient to lift their arm.
For someone suffering from an MND, this could mean recovered motor functions. As a result, Neuralink technology could be a major boon to the healthcare sector, especially. But that’s not it!
In the future, this could also mean empowering human brains with the power of Artificial Intelligence, allowing humans to communicate via thoughts, record and store their memories, or say, controlling smart IoT devices with their thoughts.
Why is Neuralink so Revolutionary?
Neuralink address two major problems that were initially considered either complete impossibility, or too ambitious.
The first one is the architectural design of BMIs. Before Neuralink, the best BMI that was available consisted of only 10 electrodes, and it was only available to a select few Parkinson’s patients in the UK as an experimental technology then Neuralink entered the scene– An entire company dedicated to research and development of advanced BMI.
The first major trial of the company on a lab rat used a device with 1500 electrodes, 150 times more than what was the best option available before Neuralink.
Thus, Neuralink not only made BMI smaller, but it also increased the number of electrodes, thus significantly improving the designs and allowing the device to interact with the brain at a scale that wasn’t possible earlier.
Now, onto the second problem that Neuralink addressed.
Our brain has a “bandwidth” issue. To perform any task, first, we think about it, then the brain sends a relevant motor signal that drives our body, or more specifically, certain organs to carry out that particular task. As we can see, there are a lot of, what we can call, “middlemen” between the process of thinking to the process of carrying out the desired task.
What makes Neuralink so revolutionary is that it has the potential of eliminating all these middlemen! Instead of waiting for the body-mind coordination to perform a certain task, someone with Neuralink could do it just with the power of their thought (and a companion machine to perform that specific task). A good example of this can be typing an essay while thinking about it, without the need of using your fingers or voice to type!
Neuralink, though still in a very early developmental stage, is already making some breakthroughs in the field of neuroscience and BMIs. The recent live demonstration with the pigs clearly showed that the technology is very much capable.
The time when we can control machines with our thoughts, or people with physical disabilities can get a new chance in life with their exoskeleton bodies is not very close. But the direction Neuralink is heading into, this is most certainly a possibility in the future.
What more areas do you think can the Neuralink be applied to? Let us know in the comments!