What is Neuralink?

Neuralink is the new company that Elon Musk has set up which aims to bridge the border between mind and machine. By inserting 10’000 electrodes into your brain, Neuralink will allow the subject to control and run things with their mind. Musk states that there are two goals for this technology; the short term goal being to help patients with brain issues, and the slightly dystopian longterm goal being our ability to “go along for the ride” utilising a “high bandwidth brain-machine interface”, even as we are likely to be overtaken by AI due to the rapid changes happening in that field. Musk’s aspirations, as always, appear to be in the science fiction, yet this one may be the craziest one yet.

Is it going to change everything?

Musk claims that not much will actually change about the average person in day to day life. He states that us, as humans, live in three distinct levels: the lumbar, the cortex, and the tertiary. The tertiary being the tools and information around us, be it a pen, a book or a smartphone. All Musk claims to be doing is shortening the input and output speeds between the cortex and the tertiary levels. Right now our input speed to our tertiary level is rather slow, generally being the speed one can write with their right thumb. Although the output speed, or the speed that one can read at, is significantly better than our input speed, it’s still not as fast as we need it to be. By creating a high bandwidth link between the tertiary and the cortex levels we will be able to access information at a level faster than our own thought.

Say we wanted to know when the Battle of Hastings was. Currently not having Neuralink, we would first think back and see if we would know the answer, then formulate a question, then open Google, then type the question in, then allow Google to run it’s software and process the information we just input, then we read it, and then that information is processed in our brains and we know it. With a Neuralink implant, we would be able to easily access and process the information as we form the thought, due to the processing power being faster than our thought process. See how many times less you read the word then.

How does it work?

Neuralink will be implanted into the subject’s head, yet due to its incredibly small size and ease of operation, this will not need to be done by a neurosurgeon, nor under an anesthetic. This would be done by a specialized robot that first scans the head of the subject for blood vessels before painlessly implanting the electrodes into the subject’s brain in targeted locations. These neurons link to a chip which feeds back through the scalp to a wearable earpiece containing batteries and a Bluetooth connector.

The individual electrodes get put in a cluster of neurons. When a current is sent down a neuron an electromagnetic field is created, which induces a current in the nearby electrode. This is sent to the chip which analyses the shape and intensity of this increase in potential difference before deducing which neuron or neurons it came from, thus allowing for one electrode to read multiple different neurons. This radius of readable neurons from a single electrode is roughly 60 microns, making it necessary for the electrode to be implanted into the brain rather than resting on the scalp. To input information to the brain, a similar process occurs. The electrode will send out the same pattern in potential difference, thus activating the desired neurons. As the electrodes themselves are on the same scale as a neuron they can enter and stay in the brain with no disruption to function.

How is this going to help?

Neuralink, like all other brain to computer interfaces, has been designed for the short term goal of helping with brain conditions. So far Neuralink and others like it have definitively cured Parkinson’s Disease, Dystonia, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and Epilepsy. Yet due to its current lack of refinement as a form of technology, it can be costly and invasive. Investigatory research and limited test trials show that has the potential to cure Depression, Chronic Pain, and Tinnitus. Even with the limited amount of physical trials and time, this type of solution is already showing incredible results.

Before any more hypothesising is done to what it can cure, it is important to know what Neuralink is capable of. For patients who have lost limbs, electrodes can be set up in the area of the unused motor neurons to allow for the same thought to cause a robotic action. E.g. Rather than trying to teach someone to move a cursor on a screen by chance, the Neuralink consultant will ask them to move their non-existent arm up, causing the cursor to move up on the screen. This would allow for a faster transition between the two stages and the possibility of the interface then being able to be linked to a cybernetic arm, which would potentially be able to carry out movement as normal. The training for this movement is done through an iPhone app, which allows for practising efficiency in typing and cursor movement on the phone, along with an integration to the phone so people can complete tasks completely hands-free. Neuralink has also shown promise in giving the patients the ability to ‘feel’ where the cursor is, another connection to regaining regular limb movement. This would be the same sensation as being able to know where your arm is without looking at it. Connecting the physical world to the digital world in a way no one has ever seen before.

But where will this lead us?

With Neuralink, cameras can hopefully be set up to be able to create live, coloured, three dimensional images that can be sent directly to the brain, thus allowing the blind to regain complete or even enhanced vision. Which I’m sure will excite any of you La Forge fans out there. This ablility, along with the ability to connect to fine-tuned touch sensors, manipulating the amount of force felt in targeted areas of the hand can allow for virtual reality to become even more realistic. Becoming a platform not just for gamers, but for social events, work, family time, sports, and more!

By using it as an interface with the hippocampus, memories and moods will be able to be transferred and communicated. In the short run, this would allow for trauma survivors and sufferers of PTSD and related disorders to have memories deleted, for people with depression to have digital psychotherapy. But in the long run the ideas are endless. Neuralink mentioned the idea of direct telepathy of not just words, but emotions, concepts, and intuition. This could be programmed into apps to create google maps with a local’s intuition built-in, emojis which convey the accurate feelings of a person. This access would also allow for complete control over hunger and cravings, instant translation of any languages, and even enhanced mathematical and logical thinking.

However the main concern that arises from this is the idea of individualism; in a world with memories, intuition, strengths, and abilities shared amongst the entire population, is anyone truly unique, truly different? Truly free?Click here to watch the whole Neuralink launch event