Brain-machine interfaces: the next step in technology

Brain-machine interfaces: the next step in technology

Elon Musk wants to link our brains directly to machines with a device worn behind the ear that would send our thoughts to our devices.

In July 2019, Elon Musk made some spectacular public pronouncements that stretched the bounds of credibility, namely regarding a new type of brain-machine interface (BMI).

If human beings do not enter into a symbiosis with artificial intelligence (AI), he declared, they are sure to be left behind. And Musk wants to be the man who stops that happening. Connecting brains directly to machines has been a long-standing aspiration of humankind. And it’s already happening, albeit in a crude way. In deep-brain stimulation, for example, neurosurgeons implant a few electrodes into a patient’s brain in order to treat Parkinson’s disease.

Rewiring the brain

Utah arrays, collections of 100 conductive silicon needles, are now employed experimentally to record brain waves. A team at the University of Washington has built a “brain-to-brain network” that allows people to play games with each other using just their thoughts. And researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, have captured neural signals from people as they talk, and have then turned that information, via a computer, into intelligible speech.

As with all things Musk-related, Neuralink—the implant he views as capable of merging human brains with AI—is much more ambitious. The controversial entrepreneur does not just want to develop a better BMI.

He aims to create a “neural lace,” a mesh of ultra-thin electrodes that capture as much information from the brain as possible. Inevitably, hurdles to such a feat abound. The electrodes needed to do this must be flexible, so that they do not damage brain tissue and are also durable. They have to number at least in the thousands in order to provide sufficient bandwidth. And to make the implantation of so many electrodes safe, painless, and effective, the process has to be automated, much like lasik surgery, which uses lasers to correct eyesight.

Neuralink does indeed seem to have made progress towards these goals. Its presentation, at the California Academy of Sciences, in San Francisco, included videos of a neuro-surgical robot that is best described as behaving like a sewing machine. This robot grabs “threads” (films, containing electrodes, that measure less than a quarter of the diameter of a human hair) and shoots them deep into the brain through a hole in the skull. It is capable of inserting six threads, each carrying 32 electrodes, per minute. The firm has also designed a chip that can handle signals from as many as 3,072 electrodes—ten times more than the best current systems—and transmit them wirelessly.

The real magic, however, kicks in only when the output is analyzed—which happens in real time. Looked at superficially, neurons in the brain seem to fire at random. Software, however, can detect patterns when the individual to whom those neurons belong carries out certain activities. Stick enough electrodes into someone’s motor cortex, for instance, and it is possible to record what happens in the brain when he types on a keyboard or moves a mouse around.

A bigger market

The data collected can then be used to control a computer directly. Conversely, the electrodes can be employed to stimulate neurons, perhaps to give the person in question the sensation of touch. Neuralink has already tested its system successfully on rats and monkeys. They were, Musk claims, able to move cursors across screens with it. The firm now hopes to work with human volunteers, perhaps as early as next year should America’s Food and Drug Administration play along.

The first goal is to use the technology to help people overcome such ailments as blindness and paralysis. Neuralink is, however, clearly aiming for a bigger mar- ket than this. It has also designed a small device that would sit behind someone’s ear, picking up signals from the implanted chip and passing them on as appropriate. Put simply, in a few years, using a brain implant to control your devices may be as de rigueur among San Francisco’s tech-heads as wearing wireless earbuds is today. Ultimately, Musk predicts, neural lace will allow humans to merge with AI systems, thus enabling the species to survive.

As everyone knows, Musk does have a habit of presenting himself as the savior of the human race. (His desire to settle Mars seems motivated partly by fear of what might, in the future, happen to Earth). Nevertheless, given the rapid pace of technological change, the idea that some machines at least will come under the direct control of human brains in the future seems entirely plausible. The biggest obstacle to such a phenomenon, however, will probably not be writing the software needed to interpret brainwaves, but rather persuading people that the necessary surgery, whether by sewing machine or otherwise, is actually a good idea.


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