November 25, 2019 • Evelyn J. Arevalo
All Images Source: Neuralink
Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, founded a company developing brain-machine interfaces, Neuralink. He showed the public some of the technology they have been developing for the first time this year. Neuralink aims to begin implanting a chip device in paralyzed humans to allow them control of computers or phones. The device could one day enable amputees to regain mobility via use of prosthetics that they could control with their thoughts. Hearing or other sensory deficiencies, like reversing vision could also potentially be solved with the implant. Neuralink co-founder and president Max Hodak says Neuralink’s tech will be great for medical use and is hoping to actually begin working with human test subjects as early as 2020.
"We hope to have this in a human patient by the end of next year."
Besides using it as a tool for paralyzed individuals or those with sensory deficiencies, Musk believes Neuralink will be capable of helping people who have alzheimers, autism and schizophrenia, he said,
"Most people don’t realize, we can solve that with a chip."
In the future, Musk envisions commercializing the device, says we are all a bit cyborg already since we are all connected to machine and utilize cell phones, internet, etc. on a daily basis. His goal is to allow humans to communicate quicker with machines - directly from the brain - instead of clicking buttons or using our voice. Long-term, Neuralink really is about figuring out a way to "achieve a sort of symbiosis with artificial intelligence."
"This is gonna sound pretty weird, but we want to achieve a sort of symbiosis with artificial intelligence."
Musk has said on several occasions that the biggest threat to humanity will be artificial intelligence (AI), humans won't be capable of competing with machine super intelligence, especially if they reach singularity, "if you can't beat them, join them." Neuralink could give a human access to AI and a wide range of information.
Imagine having all the internet's knowledge inside your brain.
Neuralink's current prototype design consists of a device implanted behind the ear, connected to a tiny chip with electrode threads. The threads are 4 to 6 μm in width, which makes them significantly thinner than a human hair. These threads are threaded into the brain, where they can stimulate the neurons or nerve cells.
A huge technological advancement Neuralink has made is creating these flexible threads that are less likely to damage the brain compared to the materials used in our current brain-machine interfaces.These threads also create the possibility of transferring a higher volume of data, the system could include “as many as 3,072 electrodes per array distributed across 96 threads."
Besides developing these threads, Neuralink’s other technological advancement is a neurosurgical robot that automatically embeds the the tiny threads into the brain. This robot operates almost like a “sewing machine” to implant threads deep within the brain tissue. It's interference is so small that it avoids blood vessels, which may lead to less of an inflammatory response in the brain.
The robot would use a stiff needle to insert the threads into position, about 1 millimeter into the outer surface of the brain, or the cerebral cortex, where it will have the capability of performing both read and write operations at high data volume. The robot would be able to insert six threads per minute automatically, that is equivalent to 192 electrodes per minute.
Right now, Neuralink implants can only transmit data via a wired connection, it actually uses USB type C, but ultimately the goal is to create a system than can work wirelessly.
The wireless version of Neuralink will be a referred to as the “N1 sensor,” designed to be embedded inside a human brain to transmit data wirelessly. Neuralink would connect wirelessly to an external device mounted behind the ear, where the only battery will be located. “It will be controlled through an iPhone app,” Hodak said. They plan to implant four of these sensors, three in motor areas and one in a somatosensor area.
The company has been testing the first prototype of Neuralink on a laboratory rat, with performance levels that exceed today’s brain-interface systems, in terms of data transfer. The data from the rat was gathered via a USB type C port on its head, providing about 10x more of what the best sensors in existence can currently offer. Musk said they have tested the microchip on a monkey too,
"A monkey has been able to control a computer with its brain."
The work with monkeys was done in conjunction with the University of California, "The results have been very positive." Neuralink's president, Hodak, said that he wished the company didn't have to experiment on animals but that it's a necessary "step in the process."
The company will continue testing the device before implanting it on the first human before the end of next year.