Just imagine a paralyzed person, who is disabled in his hands and feet, cannot even speak, he thinks about doing something in his mind and that work is done automatically. This seemingly impossible task and apparently a science fiction movie scene is an important application of Elon Musk’s Neuralink project. Neuralink is Elon Musk’s neural interface technology company that has been working on a major neural interface project since 2016.
Musk claims that as a result of the success of this project a paralyzed person can use a smartphone by just his brain, without using his hands, faster than a normal person who do it with his fingers or thumbs. A proof-of-concept video was recently released showing a nine-year-old monkey playing a pong game on computer – Neuralink monkey experiment. The monkey was taught to play the game using a joystick pad but even after disconnecting the joystick pad the monkey could be seen successfully playing the game through its mind.
So, what is this neural interface and how can the signal generated in the brain be read and transmitted to the computer? What is the Neuralink project and how will it transform a paralyzed person’s thoughts into actions? What medical and scientific revolution could the Neuralink project bring? Let’s have the answers to all these interesting questions!
Neuralink Project Devices
The NeuralLink company is currently developing two different devices. The first device is a brain chip called “link”. The chip would be implanted in a person’s skull. The electrodes connected with thin wires attached to the chip will be extended into the brain that are capable of recording the person’s brain activity.
On the other hand, this company is developing a robot that can automatically implant this chip into the human brain. The robot will use a needle to implant fine, flexible wires from the Neuralink chip into a person’s brain.
This revolutionary Neuralink Project is aim to deliver three stated goals:
- The first, and short-term, goal is to treat mental disorders and help people with neurological problems.
- The second and mid-term goal is to create a brain-machine interface that is, to link the human brain with a computer and enable them to communicate with each other.
- The third and long-term goal is to create a coexistence between humans and machines powered by artificial intelligence.
Elon Musk considers artificial intelligence a threat to humanity in the future. Because the capacity of learning in computers is much higher than humans; he thinks that with time, artificial machines will become more intelligent and powerful than humans and thus they will become a threat to the existence of humanity. He explained that while building a road, we destroy the houses of ants on the way. But we are just building a road and along the way the ants and their colonies are destroyed. We don’t want to kill them So, according to Musk, in the future, humans will be like ants in front of artificial machines. Therefore, it is very important to maintain moderation and equality between humans and AI machines.
When Elon Musk founded the company in 2016, he said the computing power of the Neuralink project could enable humans to compete with rapidly developing artificial intelligence (AI). But with this new announcement, researchers have also turned their attention to helping people with mental illnesses through this technology. And thus the project was formally launched to achieve numerous medical and scientific objectives.
How Does Neuralink work?
To understand the workings of this brain chip and the Neuralink project, it is important to understand the fascinating science behind the human brain. Any action or work done by our body is the result of a process running in our mind. The human brain is considered to be the most complex biological structure so far. Researchers are constantly researching in its various fields but despite so much scientific progress, we are still unable to fully understand the human mind.
The brain is an important part of our nervous system. The nervous system detects what is happening in our body and around us and decides how we should react in any given situation. The human brain contains neurons that send electrical and chemical signals to body cells including muscles, glands, nerves and other neurons. There are about 85 billion neurons in the human brain. These neurons help in coordinating all the essential functions of life like walking, breathing and responding to pain or discomfort in any part of the body. For example, when our hand suddenly touches a hot surface, the nerve cells in the hand immediately send a message of pain to the brain, upon receiving this message, the brain sends a message to the muscles of the hands and we move the hand away from the hot surface. All these tasks are completed by neurons so fast that we do not even feel pain. In short, everything we think or do would not be possible without neurons.
The brain chip made by NeuralLink has a diameter of 23 mm. Fine wires from the chip, about a quarter the size of a human hair, will extend into the brain. These wires are equipped with 1,024 electrodes capable of monitoring brain activity and can also stimulate the brain through electrical signals. Each electrode can interface with 1,000 to 10,000 neurons. Nerve signals generated in the brain due to a thought or action can be read through these electrodes. Similarly, an external message can also be conveyed to the brain through these electrodes.
Older designs of the Neuralink device included a bean-shaped device that was implanted behind the ear. But the design was very complicated and since you had to have a permanent device installed behind your ear, it is visible externally. So it was designed like a coin to be inserted directly into the brain. Another advantage was that, being inside the head, the signals generated in the brain could be read much better. These signals will be transmitted wirelessly from the chip to an external computer and the computer will act on the received signals
In addition, researchers will be able to study these signals data. The chip can be fully charged overnight via wireless charging. Neurons of people suffering from neurological disorders are unable to send signals to some nerves or other neurons due to which their body cannot give any specific response. For example, if a paralyzed person in a wheelchair wants to move his wheelchair in a certain direction, his brain will generate a specific signal for his hands. But due to illness, that signal does not reach the hands and thus his hands cannot move the wheelchair. In such a case, this neural link brain chip can be used as a link between the human brain and the wheelchair. This brain chip will read these signals generated in the brain and send them to an external computer. By connecting this computer to the wheelchair the wheelchair can be moved in an automated manner using the received signals.
Similarly, our computer, which receives instructions from a keyboard or mouse with the help of this technology, it will be able to receive it directly from the human brain and thus we will be able to use the computer without a keyboard and mouse. Moreover, if a paralyzed person needs something through this technology, without using his hands, he will be able to send a message related to his need to any other person by using his mobile phone only through his mind. Or he can send this message to a computer. Various devices like lights, fans, air-conditioners or other electrical devices can be connected to the computer which can be controlled by a paralyzed person with his thoughts through this neural link technology.
Neuralink: A Cure to Neurological Diseases
Elon Musk has claimed that neural link technology can cure tinnitus by 2027. Tinnitus is a neurological condition in which the patient hears different sounds in the ears when these sounds do not actually exist. Apart from this, this brain chip will be able to solve memory loss, blindness and deafness to paralysis, depression, Parkinson’s, epilepsy and other neurological diseases. On the other hand, when this brain-machine interface matures, human intelligence and learning will increase many times through it. Rock climbing without fear, creating music and lyrics in your head, seeing radar beams with superhuman vision, transferring your skills and languages directly into your brain with the help of a computer, and curing countless mental illnesses. These are just a few of the applications that Elon Musk and his company’s scientists believe will one day emerge as a result of this project.
The company says that in the future, the number of electrodes attached to the brain chip will be increased from 1,024 to 3,000, allowing access to more parts of the brain and new types of neural information. These claims of Elon Musk may seem unrealistic but the basic science and logic behind them is considered to be correct by scientists.
When will Neuralink be Available?
Neuralink’s chip has so far been successfully tested on monkeys and other animals but human trials are yet to be executed – we’re talking about Elon Musk brain chip human trials – and this phase is expected to begin by the end of 2022 and this is subjected to approval of concerned regulatory bodies of the United States. Till now American regulatory body FDA classifies Neuralink as a Class III medical device, which is the most difficult or dangerous category.
Before beginning human trials, Neuralink must successfully complete the FDA’s stringent regulatory controls. For approval, the company must provide complete clinical trial data from animal testing to justify moving to the next step in a prudent manner. As some monkeys died during Neuralink’s monkey testing; hence this project is also drawing criticism for its animal welfare policies. For this reason, the approval process for trials on the human brain can take some time.
Regulators are also tasked with looking for potential unintended adverse outcomes or side effects of the device. It will also be of interest to what extent it is possible to remove or repair a device if it malfunctions, and with this chip in the brain, how the risk of brain injury or infection will be managed. After FDA approval, Neuralink will enroll human volunteers and proceed with the next round of trials. How long it will take for the device to be commercially available and how much it will cost have yet to be estimated.
Elon Musk has always had a unique mindset and his projects are very different in terms of utility. Undoubtedly, this neuralink project of his will lead to a scientific and medical revolution when completed.