The concepts of mind uploading, brain-computer interfaces, and transhumanism have soared immensely in the last couple of months. Perhaps it can be attributed to the ongoing pandemic, which pushed projects that hope to improve humanity to gain a lot of traction. Among these, Neuralink has stirred discussions, particularly its recent live demonstration last 28 August 2020. But what is Neuralink, exactly? Let’s dive in.
What Is Neuralink?
Neuralink is a device that can be surgically implanted into a human brain to allow humans to talk to and control machines, according to its proponents. More than that, though, the ambitious project spearheaded by Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk will let scientists study and analyze electrical signals in the brain. Eventually, it can serve as a means to cure various medical disorders, particularly those connected with brain functions.
How Does Neuralink Work?
In the latest Neuralink demonstration, Musk compared the technology to wearing a Fitbit in one’s skull. It has thousands of thin wires penetrating the brain’s outer layer, allowing its owner to communicate with his/her brain cells. The electrodes are linked to a computing device via Bluetooth. Watch the Neuralink’s Complete Live Demo here.
To better understand how Neuralink will achieve this feat, we first need to know how the brain sends and processes signals through neurons.
Neurons can communicate with and send signals to each other via neurotransmitters. The exchange generates an electric field, which can be recorded by electrodes. That is where Neuralink comes in. Placing electrodes to record impulses makes it easier for a computer to translate signals into machine-readable algorithms. Ultimately, the goal is to let humans communicate with machines by merely thinking.
What Are the Potential Applications of Neuralink?
According to several team members of the Neuralink project, the device has several exciting applications that include:
Neuralink has the potential to become a visual prosthesis for individuals suffering from a retinal injury. The process involves plugging a camera into the visual cortex and stimulating electrodes to recreate images. Musk claims that Neuralink can even give someone super-vision, letting him/her see different wavelengths and even radar trackers.
Neuralink also boasts of helping people with brain and spinal cord injuries to increase their mobility and bring back sensation to their extremities. It can cure paraplegia, as evidenced by clinical trials. Musk also claims that it can restore a person’s full-body motion. “If you can sense what people want to do with their limbs, you can do a second implant where the spinal injury occurred and create a neural shunt,” Musk added.
Disease Prediction and Prevention
Some diseases show changes in the body’s chemical composition before they are physically manifested. Neuralink can pick up chemical signals. If scientists get early access to these, it will be easier to predict a person’s risk of developing certain diseases and preventing them from turning into full-blown illnesses.
Cure for Mental Illness
Neuralink’s proponents claim that it can scale into many other regions of the brain. As such, it can understand and address issues that cause fear, anxiety, depression, and many other mental illnesses.
Beyond medical applications, Neuralink can further the concept of telepathy. Musk and his team explained that a person needs to exert a substantial effort to compress thoughts into a set of words when communicating. A person can express his/her real thoughts with a Neuralink implant.
What Are the Issues Surrounding Neuralink?
Given its applications, we can say that Neuralink is impressive. Not everyone is convinced, though. Some are raising questions, particularly concerning ethical issues that the technology may be forgetting or ignoring. While visual and limb prostheses, disease prediction and prevention, and curing mental illnesses are welcome applications, many are worried about its ability to read a person’s mind.
The brain is the seat of a person’s identity and sense of self. Making it accessible for anyone to tinker with can be problematic. There are tons of social risks. Neuralink use can disrupt social norms and ignore established values and traditions. If programmed to react to stimuli, it can change a person’s mood or actions that don’t necessarily reflect its user’s innate characteristics and values.
People who have access to Neuralink may want to use it to become “better” than their peers. They can use it to enhance cognition, physical abilities, and moods or even change their personalities. The issue lies in setting boundaries to the technology’s use. Are regulations necessary?
What Is the Current State of Neuralink Development?
In the Neuralink event held last 28 August 2020, the device was implanted into a pig’s skull. Proponents demonstrated how a wireless link from a computing device displays the pig’s brain’s current activities. Musk revealed a newer version of the implant, which was much smaller and can easily fit into a small cavity. This minute electrode thread can be inserted into the brain’s cortex to detect electrical impulses from nerve cells to indicate that the brain is at work.
None of the long-term results of Neuralink was shown, but Musk revealed that the “breakthrough device” testing was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Perhaps we can expect something more once testing is completed. For now, we can only hope that Neuralink will indeed bring forth positive changes.
Now that we know the answer to “What is Neuralink?” it would be easier to voice your opinion about its development.