21st July 2019
Elon Musk plans brain–machine interface to upgrade humans
This week, Elon Musk's company Neuralink applied to U.S. regulators to begin trials of a new brain enhancement technology, which could be tested on human volunteers from 2020.
Neuralink Corporation was founded by Elon Musk in 2016 and first publicly reported in March 2017. The company, headquartered in San Francisco, aims to create brain–machine interfaces (BMIs), not only for diseased or injured patients – but also healthy individuals wishing to enhance themselves.
In an interview with science blog Wait But Why, Musk said that he became interested in the idea from a sci-fi concept called the "neural lace", which forms part of the fictional universe in The Culture, a series of 10 novels by Iain M. Banks.
Musk defined the implantable device as a "digital layer above the cortex" that would not necessarily imply extensive surgical insertion, but ideally an implant through a vein or artery. He explained that the longer-term goal is to achieve "symbiosis with artificial intelligence", which he perceives as an existential threat to humanity if it goes unchecked. At the present time, some neuroprosthetics can interpret brain signals and allow disabled people to control their prosthetic arms and legs. Musk aims to link that technology with implants that, instead of actuating movement, can interface at broadband speed with other types of external software and gadgets.
Since its founding, Neuralink has hired several high-profile neuroscientists from various universities, received $158 million in funding (of which $100 million is from Musk himself) and expanded its staff to 90 employees. Until now, the company had remained highly secretive about its work, although public records showed that it sought to open an animal testing facility in San Francisco; it subsequently began research at the University of California, Davis.
This week, Neuralink held a live-streamed presentation at the California Academy of Sciences. The proposed technology involves a module placed outside the head that wirelessly receives information from thin flexible electrode threads embedded in the brain. The system could include "as many as 3,072 electrodes per array distributed across 96 threads" each 4 to 6 μm in width. The threads would be embedded by a robotic apparatus that would avoid damaging blood vessels.
One engineering challenge is that the brain's chemical environment can cause many plastics to gradually deteriorate. Another challenge is the inflammatory reaction to foreign objects. If successfully developed, however, these implants could be a major milestone in transhumanism, a growing movement of people seeking to evolve humans beyond their current physical and mental limitations.
"Even in a benign AI scenario, we will be left behind," explained Musk. "With a high bandwidth brain–machine interface, we can go along for the ride and effectively have the option of merging with AI."
A paper describing this futuristic technology is available online at bioRxiv.