What if the human brain and artificial intelligence joined forces to achieve major breakthroughs? That’s precisely what Neuralink, a neurotechnology company co-founded by Elon Musk in 2016, aims to do in the near future.
Over the past few years, Neuralink has been working on a brain chip interface that could be implanted into the human brain and, potentially, help restore capabilities such as vision, motor function, and speech. According to Musk, this technology could also be used to achieve human telepathy and control over memories.
In May 2023, a major milestone was achieved, as the company received the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)’s approval to launch their first human clinical study, meaning it will soon conduct its first tests on humans.
Intrigued already? Here are all the details you need to know about Neuralink’s plans for the future and the potential impacts on our lives.
“The future is going to be weird”, Elon Musk said, back in 2020, when predicting how his neurotechnology company could shape the future. In fact, Neuralink has been breaking ground by developing a brain implant device – officially known as a Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) – that could have a significant impact on human health.
This BCI – already tested in monkeys – would be implanted into the human brain to decode brain activity and communicate it to computers. In other words, it would allow brain information to be “downloaded” and, if needed, restored.
The initial goal is to use it for medical purposes, such as:
- giving people with quadriplegia the ability to control their computers and mobile devices with their thoughts;
- curing paralysis or blindness, by restoring neural activity where it was lost;
- curing severe neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s or dementia.
The ultimate goal, however, is to merge human consciousness and artificial intelligence on a deeper level, by:
- achieving human telepathy;
- developing the ability to save, replay and restore memories;
- providing people with “super vision”;
- among others.
The technology behind it
There are 2 pieces of equipment currently being developed by Neuralink:
The N1 implant is sized at 23mm x 8 mm (approximately the size of a coin) and has 1024 electrodes distributed across 64 threads. These ultra-thin threads are responsible for connecting to the human brain and processing neuro signals.
Then, these signals are transmitted via Bluetooth to the Neuralink app, which decodes the information.
The chip is also described as cosmetically invisible and hermetically sealed in a biocompatible enclosure that withstands physiological conditions much harsher than those in the human body. Also, it is powered by a small battery charged wirelessly.
Technically speaking, Neuralink uses C++ and Python as the main programming languages.
2) Surgical robot
Precisely because the threads connecting the chip to the human brain are so thin – approximately 20 times thinner than a human hair –, there is no way a human hand could insert them successfully. Therefore, Neuralink is creating a robot that can do that surgical procedure efficiently – it involves opening up the scalp, removing a portion of the skull, inserting the electrodes and threads exactly where they need to be, and closing the incision. All this while dodging blood vessels to avoid bleeding.
Technologically possible or science fiction?
Opinions diverge, but according to Alter Solutions’ expert Leonardo Silva, Neuralink’s ambitions may very well come true. However, a lot of development and innovation still must take place prior to those achievements.
“We think we are living in a time when nothing seems to surprise us anymore. However, Neuralink’s highly ambitious project makes us relive old childhood dreams, like moving objects with our mind or even communicating telepathically with each other. In my humble opinion, this is the first step towards evolution in several areas”, he states.
Technologically speaking, there are several barriers to overcome. “The challenges are immense, including interfaces, machine languages and device integrations development. In addition, software challenges will be fundamental. In other words, it will be necessary to create forms of development that do not yet exist to meet so many demands”, the software development expert says.
With over 16 years of experience, Leonardo Silva believes that using key programming languages and libraries will support Neuralink’s work along the way. “The use of robust languages like Python, C++ and even Rust provides support for a safe and efficient development. Especially Python, widely used for human-machine interactions, has libraries that facilitate these interactions, as well as signal processing resources and data analysis capabilities to interpret information captured by sensors. Also, popular libraries such as TensorFlow and Keras provide powerful features for developing machine learning models.”
Considering all these factors, Leonardo considers that “we still have, at least, 10 years ahead of us until such an advanced technology can exist – which, considering its complexity, is a relatively short time”. “We will certainly have to deal with several ethical issues and promote discussions with society, but the advances are undeniably incredible”, he reckons.
The ethical and security issues are precisely what we’ll talk about next.
When Neuralink first communicated its intentions, several security and ethical concerns were raised: would we be providing full access to our brains? What could happen if a human brain is hacked? Where do we draw the line when it comes to one’s privacy?
This is where cybersecurity meets neuroethics. “This is a path to make the human brain a ‘connected device’, to make it part of the IoT world. Like any other IoT, it can bring a lot of interesting and powerful features that advance science and the overall quality of life. On the other hand, having brains as connected devices involves the risk of compromising cybersecurity”, signals Nabil Diab, Alter Solutions’ Head of Cybersecurity.
But what exactly are the risks of this kind of exposure? Nabil points out three worst case scenarios:
- Remote control of your brain by an attacker: “would this make you a robot controlled by somebody else?”, he questions;
- Brain data leaks & loss: “do you want to know what your enemy thinks? Just penetrate his brain implant”;
- Modification of your brain data: “what if the implant has an ‘editing access’ on brain information? Maybe we can modify it or just delete it!”.
For now, while the technology is still being developed, Alter’s cybersecurity expert believes that we should be taking into consideration all the risks of using it. Just like we should have done with previous technologies in the past. “We introduced drones a decade ago as an object that would give you the ability to capture the most incredible photographs you ever dreamed of, but it’s also used (and a lot) to drop bombs on battlefields. So, this technology introduced with medical purposes will for sure be used by military and intelligence agencies. A lot of offensive cybersecurity research will be done on that field, so we can already predict a lot of cybersecurity threats”, Nabil says.
“Like any connected object, if this technology sees the light of day, it will be hacked and it will have an impact. The more powerful the connected object is, the more advanced the threat will be”, he concludes.