Elon Musk's secretive "brain-machine interface" startup, Neuralink, stepped out of the shadows on Tuesday evening, revealing its progress in creating a wireless implantable device that can – theoretically – read your mind. At an event at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, Musk touted the startup's achievements since he founded it in 2017 with the goal of staving off what he considers to be an "existential threat": artificial intelligence (AI) surpassing human intelligence. Two years later, Neuralink claims to have achieved major advances toward Musk's goal of having human and machine intelligence work in "symbiosis". Neurolink says it has designed very small "threads" – smaller than a human hair – that can be injected into the brain to detect the activity of neurons. It also says it has developed a robot to insert those threads in the brain, under the direction of a neurosurgeon.
Elon Musk said startup Neuralink, which aims to build a scalable implant to connect human brains with computers, has already implanted chips in rats and plans to test its brain-machine interface in humans within two years, with a long-term goal of people "merging with AI." Brain-machine interfaces have been around for awhile. Some of the earliest success with the technology include Brown University's BrainGate, which first enabled a paralyzed person to control a computer cursor in 2006. Since then a variety of research groups and companies, including the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and DARPA-backed Synchron, have been working on similar devices. There are two basic approaches: You can do it invasively, creating an interface with an implant that directly touches the brain, or you can do it non-invasively, usually by electrodes placed near the skin. Neuralink, says Musk, is going to go the invasive route.
Elon Musk doesn't think his newest endeavor, revealed Tuesday night after two years of relative secrecy, will end all human suffering. At a presentation at the California Academy of Sciences, hastily announced via Twitter and beginning a half hour late, Musk presented the first product from his company Neuralink. It's a tiny computer chip attached to ultrafine, electrode-studded wires, stitched into living brains by a clever robot. And depending on which part of the two-hour presentation you caught, it's either a state-of-the-art tool for understanding the brain, a clinical advance for people with neurological disorders, or the next step in human evolution. The chip is custom-built to receive and process the electrical action potentials--"spikes"--that signal activity in the interconnected neurons that make up the brain.
When Elon Musk first started talking about launching a brain-computer interface company, he made a number of comments that set expectations for what that idea might entail. The company, he said, was motivated by his concerns about AI ending up hostile to humans: providing humans with an interface directly into the AI's home turf might prevent hostilities from developing. Musk also suggested that he hoped to avoid any electrodes implanted in the brain, since that might pose a barrier to adoption. At his recent public launch of the company (since named Neuralink), worries about hostile AIs did get a mention--but only in passing. Instead, we got a detailed technical description of the hardware behind Neuralink's brain-computer interface, which would rely on surgery and implanted hardware.
Computers and brains already talk to each other daily in high-tech labs – and they do it better and better. For example, disabled people can now learn to govern robotic limbs by the sheer power of their mind. The hope is that we may one day be able to operate spaceships with our thoughts, upload our brains to computers and, ultimately, create cyborgs. Elon Musk (pictured) has acquired Neuralink, a company aiming to establish a direct link between the mind and the computer. Its'neural lace' technology involves implanting electrodes in the brain to measure signals.