Everything Elon Musk does sounds like it comes straight out of a pulp science fiction novel, and his latest venture is no exception: merging artificial intelligence with the human brain.
Paypal and Tesla magnate Elon Musk is finally revealing what his company Neuralink, a tech startup that began in 2017, has been working on. For his next big project, Musk plans to create computer-brain interfaces that connect through artificial intelligence.
In news that is both exciting and terrifying in equal measure, the proposed technology would allow the user to control computers, prosthetic limbs, and drones with their thoughts alone. The plan is for a neurosurgical robot to implant groups of tiny, flexible electrode “threads” into the brain. The electrical signals in the brain are then transmitted outside of the body, allowing the user to control things with their mind!
Similar technology has been researched by universities and U.S. military scientists previously. Musk’s high-profile entry into this field could provide the push that it needs to truly take off.
Building on old technology
Neuralink’s plans for a brain-robot hybrid are building on pre-exisiting technologies and bringing them into the 21st century. The company is using the same concepts as the medical electrocardiogram and electroencephalogram, which date back to the late 19th and 20th centuries. Even the cochlear implant is a form of brain-machine interface, a common medical device for the hearing-impaired created in the 1970s.
The U.S. military’s science sector announced its foray into this field at the beginning of 2016 with its Neural Engineering System Design initiative. This program:
“aims to develop an implantable neural interface able to provide unprecedented signal resolution and data-transfer bandwidth between the human brain and the digital world.”
The field has been building in recent years, waiting for a famous face to bring this technology to the forefront.
A brain-machine interface (BMI) could soon be a reality
Neuralink will be used to combat various forms of spine or brain-specific disorders. Most notably, paralysed people could potentially use the Neuralink device to control computers, phones or other electronic tools. A drone could be steered by simply thinking “left”, “right”, “up” or “down”.
Musk’s real interest lies in the capacity for humans to use the software to achieve a symbiotic state with artificial intelligence. The first clinical human trials will begin in 2020, once they get approval from the FDA. This will involve a robotic surgeon drilling small holes in test subjects’ skulls and threading wires into their brains before patching the holes with computer chips. These would wirelessly connect to an app on the user’s smartphone.
Each group of threads inserted into the brain could contain 3,072 electrodes distributed across 96 threads. Each thread is smaller than the size of a human hair and reportedly would be painless to insert.
“This is going to sound pretty weird, but ultimately, we will achieve symbiosis with artificial intelligence,” Musk said in a press conference.
The future of humans and AI
Musk famously confessed his fear of artificial intelligence, describing it as humanity’s “biggest existential threat”. He hopes that this new technology can give humanity the competitive edge it needs in the inevitable future human-robot showdown.
At the Neuralink Launch Event in San Franscisco on July 16, Musk explained that he hopes to deliver a “well-aligned future” for humans and artificial intelligence.
“Over time I think we will probably see a closer merger of biological intelligence and digital intelligence,” Musk stated.
“It’s mostly about the bandwidth, the speed of the connection between your brain and the digital version of yourself, particularly output.
Should we be concerned?
The thought of a robot surgeon drilling holes into people’s skulls is definitely alarming, and sounds more like the plot of a 2005 Doctor Who episode than real news.
However, BMI technologies could certainly have fantastic and far-reaching impacts for people living with disabilities, allowing people to bypass their bodies and control devices with their minds instead. The medical and lifestyle implications of this technology could be life-changing for many.
Musk argued in his presentation at the launch that Neuralink’s approach is more advanced than other companies working in the field, with its methods and materials less likely to risk brain damage in its subjects. It could be the next step in the human-AI relationship.
Nevertheless, Neuralink is not without its detractors, with some scientists and ethicists questioning whether the devices could cause harm to the users’ brains. Another criticism is that the company’s paper has not been peer-reviewed, a must in the scientific community.
As with all of Musk’s ventures, it is important to remember that Musk loves a good PR moment and a way to generate press. He is definitely always looking for the next futuristic advancement in science and technology to throw his money towards. Nevertheless, this technology being commonplace is still a fair way off.
He maintains that the public has nothing to worry about,
“It’s not going to be suddenly Neuralink will have this neural lace and start taking over people’s brains”.
So, we’re not quite entering Blade Runner territory just yet.
What do you think of Musk’s plans with AI? Let us know in the comments down below!