Elon Musk’s ambitious Neuralink startup has been in stealth mode since its launch in 2017. The startup has now come out of stealth mode and shared how it’s going to connect the human brain with computers. During a presentation on Tuesday that was live-streamed on YouTube, the company said it was going to make inserting threads or wires into your brain as simple and painless as Lasik surgery.
Neuralink aims to figure out how brain interfaces could help patients with chronic medical conditions. Of course, connecting the human brain with computers will also help humanity keep up with the rapidly advancing artificial intelligence, and hopefully deal with the existential threat.
The startup uses a robot the size of a barbecue grill to insert ultrathin wires into your brain. Neuralink, which currently has about 90 employees, has raised $160 million in funding, including $100 million from Elon Musk. It has so far conducted at least 19 surgeries and successfully inserted the wires or threads about 87% of the time using robots.
It has been performing all its experiments on laboratory rats and monkeys. Elon Musk told media on Tuesday that a monkey had been able to control a computer with its brain. One of the experimental rats had a wire connected to a USB-C port on its head, which efficiently transmitted its thoughts to a computer. Elon Musk’s Neuralink startup claims its sensors are capable of collecting at least 10x more data than the most powerful sensors available today.
Neuralink president Max Hodak told media that the company was seeking USFDA approval to start clinical trials on human subjects as early as the second quarter of 2020. Hodak acknowledged that the company still had a “long way to go” before it could make its offerings commercially available to the masses. He assured that we will see “great things” in this field in the next decade.
The startup currently uses mechanical drills, which is unpleasant because it causes vibrations. In the future, it aims to use a laser drill to insert implants that transfer data from your brain to a computer. It is working with neurosurgeons at Stanford and other institutions on the project.
It’s incredibly difficult to insert flexible wires, whose diameter is only a quarter that of a human hair, into the brain. That’s because the brain treats them as foreign objects and forms scar tissues around the wires, affecting their ability to transmit signals. The company has to ensure that the insulation of the threads could stay intact inside the brain for a long time.
Transferring vast amounts of data from a large number of cells to a computer is a critical step in enhancing our understanding of the human brain. Neuralink places the threads or wires using thin needles. A computer-vision system helps avoid blood vessels and prevent serious damage to the brain. Depending on the objective, the threads can be inserted in different locations and at different depths such as the centers of hearing, vision, speech, and motion.
The threads will transmit your brain data to a tiny device placed behind your ear, which would then transmit it to a computer. Even if they make the treatments work in mice, there is no guarantee that they will get the same results in human trials. The company has already been testing the technology on primates and will start testing it on humans by next year.
Neuralink startup believes that in decades to come, millions of people across the globe would want to connect their brains with computers to “achieve symbiosis with artificial intelligence.” If everything goes as expected, post-op patients will be able to write emails or text messages just by thinking them. They would be able to download a new language into their brain by inserting new threads. The possibilities are endless.
Neuralink is not the only organization working to connect the human brain with computers. Belgium-based Imec has been testing its Neuropixels technology on animals. Imec’s technology can gather data from thousands of separate cells simultaneously.
Other companies such as Kernel and CTRL-labs are developing external devices that analyze the firing patterns of neurons from outside your body and transmit them to a computer. The US government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been funding research projects that have successfully created brain interfaces that allow quadriplegics to manipulate robot arms to perform different actions.