Updated: Dec 18, 2021
Neuralink is a newly founded neurotechnology company developing implantable brain-machine interfaces, to connect humans and computers.
Neuralink – The Workings of a Wild Ride in Mental Pong
We’ve all heard of Elon Musk: from Tesla to SpaceX, and even the Boring Company. Now, the next project on his agenda intersects the world of neuroscience with electronics. Neuralink is a newly founded neurotechnology company developing implantable brain-machine interfaces to connect humans and computers. Earlier this year, the media and neurotechnology enthusiasts alike were captivated by Neuralink’s demo where recorded neural activity from a monkey (named Pager) was used to control the movement of a Pong paddle.
How can we get a monkey to strategically move a Pong paddle using only its mind?
The answer lies in a small cylindrical ‘Link’ implanted into the brain, from which thousands of microthreads (yes, wires!) can be connected to individual neurons responsible for sensory detection and movement. When the monkey sees images on the computer screen, or when it thinks about moving the joystick with its hand, specific neurons in its brain will change the rate at which they fire action potentials, visible as spikes on an electrophysiological recording of neural activity. The Link’s neural threads contain electrodes capable of detecting this electrical output. In fact, there are 1024 electrodes averaging 5 microns in width, providing far more information about our neural activity than the 64-electrode Utah array chip commonly used by researchers today. All of this information is then sent to the Link, which decodes the neural signals and uses them to control a computer interface. Neuralink’s successful demonstrations have led some to believe that artificial intelligence could soon literally be implanted in the human mind.
Figure 1 (left). Diagram of the ‘Link’. Figure 2 (right). Graphical representation of the brain-machine interface decoding platform.
Benefits and Uses: The Purpose and Application of Neuralink
Of course, Neuralink is not just about allowing primates to play Pong with their minds. The technology was initially designed to improve the lives of patients suffering debilitating paralysis, giving them greater independence and autonomy over their actions with the aid of a computer. People with neurological disorders arising from spinal cord injury and traumatic brain injury will perhaps reap the greatest benefits, as motor and sensory function can be mimicked and temporarily restored. Users might be able to type, edit, and send messages, limited only by the speed of their own thoughts. Similarly, motor function could also be replicated in a game-like setting, with the user’s thoughts capable of controlling their avatar. Further applications can see Neuralink used to provide finer control of prosthetics, owing to the vast number of electrodes implanted that facilitate precise movement.[5,6]
The Landscape of Neural Implants
To most, the media buzz created by Neuralink is the first time the public spotlight has shone this brightly on neurotechnology. The 21st century has brought with it progress and a steady stream of funding (both public and private) to promote research into the field - Neuralink, for instance, has raised $158 million in 2019 ($100 million of which came from Musk himself).
However, the idea of using neural implants to improve health and wellbeing is not new. Comparable neurotech developments include Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS), to treat Parkinson’s disease tremor and rigidity, whereby electrodes are commonly inserted into the subthalamic nucleus (albeit in limited numbers comparable to Neuralink), and an impulse is supplied to interfere with faulty nerve signals causing tremors. Another example is the cochlear implant, a surgically implanted neuroprosthetic along the cochlea of the inner ear to stimulate the cochlear nerve, which allows those with sensorineural hearing loss to experience a modified (electronic) sense of sound. Neuralink is therefore following in the footsteps of many well-established applications of neurotechnology in the biomedical space.
Figure 3: A diagram showing where Neuralink is implanted.
How excited should we be about Neuralink?
The technological developments praised by Neuralink enthusiasts may not be all it seems. While robotic implantation alongside a wireless interface is novel, the development of brain-machine interfaces is established modern neuroscience. Experts are also still skeptical of how the technology may be applied to humans, given the complexity of decoding neuron function. Similarly, security concerns arise as the potential for hacking could render the Link inoperable, or worse, cause it to malfunction. While the hype for this technology is definitely understandable in the 21st century, solving these dilemmas will be necessary if we want to integrate Neuralink-style AI into our lives, in a manner which is effective, useful, and most importantly, safe.
What does the future hold? Well, Neuralink’s team has emphasised their next and biggest goal is to allow people with paralysis the ability to communicate. For that, we await early phase human trials in the near future, which might bring us one step closer to the future of implantable AI.
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