Elon Musk’s Neuralink has recently been in the news, and not because the private neurotechnology company has reached a breakthrough.
The San Francisco-based company is under federal investigation for alleged animal-welfare violations, according to an exclusive story published by Reuters.
Which is why I want to review what Neuralink has been up to, and what challenges the six-year-old company faces. Musk has been successful with other far-out technology — electric vehicles at scale (Tesla
), rockets that land (SpaceX), internet service via satellites (SpaceX’s Starlink).
Neuralink is working on BCIs, brain-computer interfaces, which are implants that would enable communication between human brains and computers.
The concept is not new. Researchers have been working on brain-computer interfaces for years, and Neuralink’s product, called Link, is built on existing research. However, several unique innovations make it superior to what is currently available on the market, which increases the chances of its ultimate success.
The biggest advantage is that the device is fully implantable, battery-powered and wireless, which enables it to finally move out of the laboratory setting and into the everyday lives of people who need it most.
Additionally, due to its advanced engineering, Link is able to record the activity of more neurons than any other interface. An average device of this kind can currently receive impulses from up to 200-300 electrodes. Link increases this resolution to a new level, thanks to its 2,048 electrodes. With this type of technology, we could combat degenerative diseases, stroke and paralysis, as well as Parkinson’s, epilepsy, dementia and Alzheimer’s.
The next step for Neuralink is to implant the device into a human brain. The company has already conducted experiments on animals, and soon plans to move to human clinical trials. This is an important milestone, as it will enable further testing and development of the technology.
Aside from helping combat various diseases, which is most commendable, there’s another lofty and risky goal set before this neural recording and data transmission device: allowing humans to interact with computers in a “natural and intuitive” way. The idea is that in its advanced form, Link will not only be able to read, but also to imprint data into the brain and enable two-way communication between brain and machine.
Musk has said this would allow us to augment our abilities and ultimately create devices that could help us achieve superhuman intelligence. On the surface, this sounds cool, but if you dig deeper, you’ll discover a plethora of issues.
First, the procedure itself — we’re talking about brain surgery here. While the process will no doubt improve, we’re still drilling into the skull and putting implants into the most precious organ in our body. Infections, tissue damage and cranial bleeding all come to mind.
Then, there’s the digital dimension of communication. All communication can be tampered with — it can be manipulated, signals can be skewed. Do we really want to become potentially hackable machines? Hackers will always find a way inside any device that is worth the effort, and there’s no target more valuable than an adversary’s brain.
The other big issue that Neuralink could face is the same one that plagues other implants: the body’s immune system. Our bodies are designed to protect us from foreign invaders, which is exactly what these devices are. The body will try to fight them off, and this could cause inflammation and implant rejection.
Finally, there’s an issue of infections. In the case of an ongoing brain infection, the implant would have to be removed. Removing the Neuralink implant while the brain fights infection is much more complicated than placing it in, and there are no prior documented cases of this being done.
We can, however, refer to our experience pertaining to existing devices, and one study showed issues such as infections and device failures plagued 4.6% of patients with this type of implant.
Finally, what about the long-term side effects? Although Neuralink implantation seems to be less invasive than regular brain-computer interfaces, it doesn’t mean that damage to the brain couldn’t be substantial. We’ll have the conclusive results only after decades of testing and medical studies.
For individuals with spinal cord injuries or debilitating brain damage, the Neuralink device may be a life-saving technology. But for healthy individuals, the risks seem to far outweigh the benefits. But that’s just my take.
Would you get a Neuralink implant? Let me know in the comment section below.