Elon Musk's Neuralink Aims to Upgrade Humans by Using Brain-Computer Interfaces and to Ultimately Merge Us with AI
by Alex Vikoulov [Posted July 17, 2019 11.11 am PST]
Elon Musk announces his startup's plans for human tests of neural interfaces by the end of 2020. "A monkey has been able to control a computer with his brain," he says onstage.
Elon Musk’s Neuralink startup, founded in July 2016 to create "ultra-high bandwidth brain-machine interfaces to connect humans and computers," held a special announcement event in San Francisco on Tuesday. The presentation was livestreamed from California Academy of Sciences and detailed Neuralink’s plans for developing the next generation of cybernetic neurotechnologies aimed to connect the human brain directly to computing machines.
During the event, Musk and Neuralink’s top researchers covered a lot of ground, speaking at great length about the technology behind the bold plans to hybridize your brain. The first prototype could be implanted in a human brain fairly soon. "We hope to have this, aspirationally, in a human patient by the end of this year. So it's not far," Musk said. He acknowledged, though, that approval from the US Food and Drug Administration "is quite difficult." But testing on animals is already underway, and "a monkey has been able to control the computer with his brain," Musk said.
Neuralink's initial goal is to help people deal with chronic medical conditions, outlined as "We can solve that with a chip." But the long-term goal is to build a "digital superintelligence layer" to link humans with artificial intelligence, essentially creating a "human-AI symbiote." This type of 'neural lace' could work as "a digital layer above the cortex... just as your cortex works symbiotically with your limbic system, a third digital layer could work symbiotically with the rest of you," Musk said. "Ultimately, we can do a full brain-machine interfaces where we can achieve a sort of symbiosis with AI… It’s like in 'Transcendence,'” after a short pause and with a smile he added, “I actually was in 'Transcendence.'” In the long run, that would help to "preserve and enhance your own brain" and to "create a well-aligned future."
Reiterating that humanity is at risk of being left behind by the rapid advancement of artificial intelligence — "even in a benign AI scenario, hopefully, it is a benign scenario" — Musk reassured that this is ultimately solvable, if we are to merge with AI technology and collectively counteract the runaway effect of AI advances by becoming superintelligences ourselves. "With a high-bandwidth brain-machine interface, I think we can go along for the ride and effectively have the option of merging with AI," with a goal of no less than securing "humanity's future as a civilization relative to AI." At the civilizational scale, this scenario was comprehensively theorized in the new book The Syntellect Hypothesis: Five Paradigms of the Mind’s Evolution by Alex M. Vikoulov.
The biggest technical hurdle is bandwidth, Musk noted, meaning the tools humans use to interface with computers, like current hardware systems and smartphones. "With a high-bandwidth brain interface, I think we can have the option of merging with AI," he said. When asked how Neuralink could make such an advance system affordable to everyone, Musk said the infrastructure would be so simple that it wouldn't need expensive neuroscientists to implant and maintain. "I think it's safe to say you could repay the loan with superhuman intelligence," he said. "I think it's a safe bet." Back in November, Musk touted "an AI extension of yourself" in an interview with podcast host Joe Rogan, saying: "If you can't beat it, join it.”
"From a long-term existential standpoint, that's, like, the purpose of Neuralink, to create a high-bandwidth interface to the brain such that we can be symbiotic with AI," he said. "Because we have a bandwidth problem. You just can't communicate through your fingers. It's just too slow." At the moment, we rely on an interface with technology such as our laptops that is slowed by our fingers or our eyes. Inserting a chip into our brains to speed things up will be key to overcoming that, said Musk.
Such an interface, he claimed, would allow "anyone who wants to have superhuman cognition — anyone who wants… it’s not mandatory." At some point, he said, people would be able to "upload into a new unit, literally," ensuring the continuity of subjective experience and digital immortality.
If Neuralink was run by anyone other than Elon Musk, the futurist billionaire behind SpaceX and Tesla, no one would probably have been paying much attention. But, with the famed entrepreneur at its helm, Neuralink had managed to raise more than $39 million from seven investors — more than three-quarters of its goal.
Neuralink’s technology is based on implanting tiny threads of electrodes a quarter the width of a human hair into the brain near neurons, and they can pick up and wirelessly transmit signals from those neurons to a computer. "The threads are about the same size as a neuron," Musk said. "If you're going to stick something in your brain, you want it to be tiny — approximately on par with the things that are already there." The startup uses a robotic insertion device described as a "sewing machine" that drill small holes into brains, carefully steering clear of blood vessels. But rather than drilling holes into the human skulls, Neuralink President and co-founder Max Hodak says the company eventually wants to use laser beams to create a series of tiny holes in the skull. “One of the big bottlenecks is that a mechanical drill couples vibration through the skull, which is unpleasant,” Hodak said, “whereas a laser drill, you wouldn’t feel.”
If you got a little overexcited, you are not alone, but don't expect to download the ability to speak Spanish fluently for your next vacation. You will need to train your brain to understand the Neuralink signals and it won't be easy, either, said Hodak. "It's a long process. It's like learning to touch-type or play piano," he said.
The installation takes place through holes 2mm wide, temporarily expanded to 8mm, then glued shut, Musk said. Among the company's challenges are developing electrodes that will last "many decades," however, "getting the right coatings is a tough materials science problem." The human brain is a very complex environment.
Electrodes read and write brain data bi-directionally. Neuralink is designing its electrodes not just to "read" from neurons what's going on in the brain, but also to "write" signals into the brain. "You can use this technology in the brain to restore a sense of touch or vision," said Neuralink scientist Philip Sabes. Connections to the motor control parts of the brain also could help people with brain disorders, Sabes said. "A person could imagine running, dancing or even kung fu," Sabes said, with the Neuralink connection controlling their 3D avatar in virtual reality. "Ultimately, if and when technology for spinal cord nerve or muscle stimulation gets far enough, it could be used to restore that individual's control over their own body."
Neuralink hopes its procedure will be safe and easy enough that people will choose to undergo it. "This should be safe enough that it can be an elective procedure," said company neurosurgeon Matthew MacDougall. In tests so far, "we've been able to rapidly place thousands of electrodes into the brain without any bleeding," MacDougall said. That's because the electrodes are small — far smaller than the deep-brain stimulation electrodes that currently come with about a 1-in-100 risk of causing bleeding in the brain, he said.
One of the major issues that Neuralink will have to tackle is that existing brain computer interfaces are unidirectional and single application: in the case of artificial ears, information from the outside world is carried to the brain for the task of hearing; in the case of the thought-controlled robot, the information goes the other way to enable movement. Enabling bidirectional interfaces would prove challenging for both human and machine.
The objective of the event in San Francisco was primarily talent acquisition. The job listings which are pretty much the only thing you'll find on the company's gruel website show you the challenge that Neuralink faces right now. For example, the company is looking for an engineer to work on the development of materials and processing methods that "do not currently exist" as part of its plan to develop high-density, reliable neural interfaces that are at the ground level of brain computer linking. "These materials directly interact with tissue to pick up and send brain signals, consequently, this work is a key component in the final product," says the job ad.
Neuralink brings the last frontier of human endeavor onto Musk's radar. Human brains are notoriously hard to understand, though computer scientists are progressing rapidly at simulating cognitive functionality through artificial neural networks, the most practical and promising venue for tomorrow's cybernetics.
READ MORE: Elon Musk's Neuralink Looks to Begin Outfitting Human Brains with Faster Input and Output Starting Next Year [TechCrunch]
Keywords: Elon Musk, Neuralink, ultra-high bandwidth, brain-machine interface, neural interface, cybernetics, neurotechnologies, human brain, digital superintelligence, human-AI symbiote, neural lace, digital layer, Transcendence, Syntellect Hypothesis, Five Paradigms of the Mind’s Evolution, Alex Vikoulov, Joe Rogan, digital immortality, SpaceX, Tesla, Max Hodak, Philip Sabes, 3D avatar, virtual reality, Matthew MacDougall, bci,, mind-uploading, subjective experience
Image Credits: Neuralink; Screenshots by Alex Vikoulov/Ecstadelic Media
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Alex M. Vikoulov is a futurist, evolutionary cyberneticist and philosopher, editor-in-chief at Ecstadelic Media Group, media commentator, essayist, author of many books, including the 2019-2020 best-seller "The Syntellect Hypothesis: Five Paradigms of the Mind's Evolution."
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