Elon Musk Sees His Neuralink Merging Your Brain With A.I.

Elon Musk
ASSOCIATED PRESS

Forbes

 
Jul 17, 2019

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. (The latter is the approach used by startup CTRL-Labs, for example.)

Neuralink, says Musk, is going to go the invasive route. It’s developed a chip containing an array of up to 96 small, polymer threads, each with up to 32 electrodes that can be implanted into the brain via robot and a 2 millimeter incision. The threads are small — less than 6 micrometers — because, as Musk noted in remarks delivered Tuesday night and webcast, “If you stick something in your brain, don’t want it to be giant, you want it to be tiny.”

Once implanted, according to Musk, the chip would connect wirelessly to devices. “It basically Bluetooths to your phone,” he said. “We’ll have to watch the App Store updates to that one,” he added (the audience laughed).   

Musk cofounded Neuralink in 2017 and serves as the company’s CEO, though it’s unclear how much involvement he has given that he’s also serving as CEO for SpaceX and Tesla. Company cofounder and president, Max Hodak, has a biomedical engineering degree from Duke and has cofounded two other companies, MyFit and Transcriptic. Neuralink has raised $66.27 million in venture funding so far, according to Pitchbook, which estimates the startup’s valuation at $509.3 million. 

Both Musk and Hodak spoke about the potential for its company’s neural implants to improve the lives of people with brain damage and other brain disabilities. Its first goal, based on its discussions with such patients, is the ability to control a mobile device. 

The company’s long-term goal is a bit more fantastical, and relates to Musk’s oft-repeated concerns over the dangers of advanced artificial intelligence. That goal is to use the company’s chips to create a “tertiary level” of the brain that would be linked to artificial intelligence. “We can effectively have the option of merging with AI,” he said.

“After solving a bunch of brain related diseases there is the mitigation of the existential threat of AI,” he continued. “This is the point of it.”

This pair of images from Neuralink shows its electrodes on the surface of a rat cortex (left) and one of its chips as implanted in a rat (right).
Neuralink

In terms of progress, the company says that it has built a chip and a robot to implant it, which it has implanted into rats. According to the whitepaper the company has published (which has not yet undergone any peer review), it was able to record rat brain activity from its chips, and with many more channels than exist on current systems in use with humans. 

That said — as many healthcare startups have learned — it’s a long road to travel from rats to human, and not everyone makes it. For Neuralink, the first human clinical trials are expected for next year, though Hodak mentioned that the company has not yet begun to the FDA processes needed to conduct those tests.

(Neuralink isn’t the only group trying to do a scalable implant with flexible electrodes, either. Research showing success with a comparable device was published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences). 

Not that Musk expects that you’ll be connecting your brain anytime soon. Despite the improvements to machine interfaces that the company was touting last night, Musk warned the crowd that many of the advancements he’s talking about are years or decades away. 

“It’s not going to be like suddenly Neuralink will have this incredible new interface and take over people’s brains,” he said. “It will take a long time, and you’ll see it coming. Getting FDA approval for implantable devices of any kind is quite difficult and this will be a slow process.”

∫∫∫  It’s not gonna suddenly take over people’s brains, but “it will take a long time” to take over your brain.  And you’ll see it coming, which means you’ll have opted in to merge with AI and then we shall have peace….

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