Chips that connect the human brain to outboard equipment have given paralyzed patients rudimentary control over robotic limbs. Elon Musk envisions brain-computer interfaces that wouldn’t just rehabilitate people but link them to artificial intelligence.
What’s new: Musk took the stage in San Francisco to show off a prototype from Neuralink, his secretive brain-computer interface company.
How it works: Neuralink makes conductive threads that can be woven into the brain using a machine that resembles a cross between a microscope and a sewing machine (shown in the video above).
- The threads are between 4 and 6 micrometers in diameter, half the width of a hair you might find on a newborn’s pillow.
- Each one terminates in 32 electrodes. Threads can be implanted in arrays of 96.
- The connections tap brain currents and route them to and from external devices.
Why it matters: The current industry standard in brain-machine interfaces, the Utah array, bristles with tiny spikes. They can be dangerous as the brain shifts within the skull, and they spur formation of scar tissue that interferes with connections. Neuralink claims its threads will reach more neurons, deeper in the brain, without causing damage or scarring.
What’s next: Musk hopes to put the system in people suffering from paralysis by the end of 2020.
- The operation entails drilling four holes, 8 millimeters wide, in the skull.
- Three devices would be threaded in the brain’s motor area for control signals, and another in the somatosensory region for feedback.
- If the company receives FDA approval to treat brain-related conditions, non-paralyzed people could follow, presumably lured by the prospect of plugging into artificial neural networks.
What he's saying: “Even under a benign AI, we will be left behind. With a high-bandwidth, brain-machine interface, we will have the option to go along for the ride.” — Elon Musk, CEO, Neuralink.
Yes, but: Helping paralyzed individuals is a wonderful mission. But for healthy people, the need for a higher bandwidth brain-machine interface isn't proven. We can already flash text much faster than people can read, and many can touch-type faster than they can organize their thoughts. The bottleneck may be the brain's ability to process information, not the speed at which we can give it input.
We’re thinking: Musk is a showman, but his visions for technology sometimes come true — though not always on his preferred schedule.