Neuralink: a future worth thinking about.
On the 29th of August of this year, Elon Musk presented the first tangible results on his newest and maybe most ambitious project yet: Neuralink. In a short presentation lasting only one hour, Musk showed his plans for the future of humanity; via, you guessed it: a pig. A pig? Yes, a pig. Not a regular one, but one of which Terminator would be proud; a pig with an electronic chip installed into its brain.
For the readers not yet familiar with Neuralink and its goals; Neuralink is a neurotechnology company founded in 2016 by Elon Musk and Ben Rapoport. They are working on developing brain-chips that have the capability to dramatically change the way we live our lives. Even in its startup stages, Neuralink ’s aspirations seem close to science-fiction. With their brain implants they are offering solutions to a multitude of neurological pathologies, among which are helping stroke victims get back control of their bodies and giving sufferers of Alzheimer’s the ability to slow the process of memory loss. If done successfully, this would be an incredible accomplishment onto itself. But knowing Musk, this is only the tip of the iceberg.
A neural CPU
So back to the pig. How does the chip work and how does it affect the pig? The brain implant could be viewed as a computer processor (CPU). It registers and analyses electronic activity (in this case neural activity). After which, the CPU responds by executing a set of fixed instructions. For example: if you click a website-link on your laptop, your CPU responds by interpreting the code, redirecting you to the specific page and displaying the contents on your screen.
In the pig’s case, the -chip registers and analyses the pig’s brainwaves. By documenting this neural behaviour, Musk and his team can filter out brain patterns. These brain patterns are interpreted, which enables them to predict the pig’s physical movements and emotional reactions to certain stimuli. After interpretation Musk and his team can administer ‘instructions’. These ‘instructions’ come in the shape of electronic impulses passed on by microscopic electrodes present in the implant. These electrodes have been carefully inserted into the upper parts of the brain and via these electrodes, Musk can send electronic impulses throughout the pig’s skull, which have the ability to alter the pig’s behaviour in desired ways. Freaky. To make things even freakier, Musk added that the first human trials will be taking place in the not so far future: 2021.
Solving brain injuries
So what are the first problems Neuralink seeks to solve with their technology? “With the first few versions we will be focusing on solving brain injuries.”, Musk said recently in a podcast with Joe Rogan. Neuralink wants to help sufferers of neurological damage reclaim lost parts of their lives.
He used the example of Alzheimer’s patients. “For someone with Alzheimer’s, some parts of their brain lose functionality. Your brain consists of a bunch of neural circuits and with Alzheimer’s some circuits are broken. A Neuralink could fix these circuits; by becoming a substitute for the parts that are broken.” As explained in the previous paragraph, the brain implant works as a processor, which takes over the function of the broken brain part, by processing neural impulses and administering corresponding electronic impulses, it imitates how our parts of our brains work.
Stroke victims and other brain injuries
The same principal works for stroke victims and paraplegics. Stroke victims lose control of certain parts of their brain and paraplegics lose control of certain parts of their body. A Neuralink could take over the function of these broken pieces. In the Q&A after the presentation he explained: “If you can sense what someone is trying to do with their limbs, you can place a second implant at the place of where the spinal injury of the paraplegic occurred and create somewhat of a spinal shunt.” In an earlier podcast with Joe Rogan he shared even more insights on the appliance of Neuralink: “A Neuralink in your brain could stop epilepsy form occurring. It could detect an attack in real time and fire out a counter pulse that will stop the attack.” He went on to say that the Neuralink could also be used to cure depression, addiction and a multitude of other disabilities.
As if these first prototypical appliances weren’t revolutionary enough, we can’t help ourselves jumping to futuristic science-fictional scenarios in which we can use this technology to evolve as a species. And Musk has indicated that this is not so far off.
Improving data rate
In the future these brain chips might help us improve our data rate (the speed at which we process and communicate information). “The data rate for a normal human being is about 100 bits per second; that’s being generous. A computer can communicate at 100 terra bits per second.” This means that by implementing Neuralinks in the brain, the accuracy and speed at which we can process and communicate information can be greatly increased. This is actually similar to upgrading your IQ.
Communicating without talking
Musk also added that our main way of communicating is a very inefficient way of sharing information: we talk. The problem with talking is that the talker tries to compress highly complex ideas into words, that he/she then shares. Although this compression may or may not be done effectively, these words are then decompressed and interpreted by another person, into, for them understandable terms. But often the receiving person’s interpretation is not the same as what the talker tried to convey. This leads to a failure to communicate. Musk hopes to combat this by offering a solution. Neuralink will give us the possibility to communicate only with our minds. This way he hopes to make our way communicating more effective and efficient.
When Joe Rogan asked how long it would take for this wild, futuristic scenario to become a reality, Musk did not disappoint. “There is still a lot of work to do, but if the development continues to accelerate, five to ten years.”