Whether it’s producing fancy electric cars, potentially offering commercial space travel, or ‘freeing’ Twitter, Elon Musk is eager to invest in futuristic endeavours! But did you know that he also founded a company that wants to insert implants into peoples’ heads for them to control devices with just their brain signals? Elon even called this a “FitBit in your skull” that may “solve” autism or schizophrenia…so, what’s behind all this?
Neuralink Corporation, founded by Elon Musk in 2016, is aiming to produce a brain-computer interface, or BCI for short. Usually, movement is what connects brain signals to devices in the outside world, e.g., when you type something on a keyboard with your hands. A BCI enables direct real-time communication between the brain and outside devices. For example, with a BCI you could move a robot arm by thinking about moving your own arm or you could text your friend on your phone by just thinking about it. Seems cool, right? Of course, this technology is still in a relatively early stage, and it will probably be a long time before you can buy any product like that as a consumer.
What is also very exciting about BCIs is that some may enable people that cannot move their bodies very much, e.g., quadriplegics, to interact with the outside world through technology. Imagine if we could just give someone new limbs that they could control as if these were made of their own flesh and blood!
Neuralink’s specific idea boils down to this: Tiny, tiny threads with many electrodes on them, which are implanted into the brain by a surgical robot. They are connected to a chip that collects and combines the neural signals from the electrode tips and sends them wirelessly to a device to control, e.g., your mouse cursor or computer keyboard. Neuralink already released a few videos of animal test subjects using their device, e.g., in 2021 a monkey was shown playing computer games with just its decoded brain signals, no hand movements needed! Pretty neat, right? Well, yes. But as researchers far and wide have remarked: this kind of technology has been available since about 2002…
So, what is new about Neuralink then?
Firstly, invasiveness: Typically, research on BCIs in humans has used non-invasive methods such as EEG or fMRI to connect brains with computers. Neuralink is different in that regard. They insert technology into people’s heads and this act of implanting something into the skull is obviously far more dangerous than just putting on an EEG cap! Implantation is used because if you record closer to individual neurons the signal is much clearer compared when you place electrodes on top of the head. The big issue with this is that something may become infected after the surgery, which can get very dangerous. While in certain cases, like for people with very strong epilepsy, implantation of electrodes is already being done, doing this on healthy people deserves way more critical consideration since they don’t have the purpose of treating a certain ailment.
Secondly, wirelessness: Typically, the EEG or fMRI are connected to a computer to be controlled via cables, which restricts mobility and general practicability. So, wirelessness, if it functions properly, could be a huge advantage of Neuralink compared to a lot of current BCIs.
To sum it up, Neuralink has some promising features that may really add something useful to future BCI research. However, you should not expect this product on the shelves anytime soon since human safety is still a massive issue at the moment. And most importantly, you should generally be critical of a businessman hyping his own company on social media!
Author: Melanie Smekal
Image created using DALL-E-2 open AI software