No matter what you think about him, you most definitely have heard the name Elon Musk. He's the man behind Tesla, Space X and Paypal. His vast wealth and his public, often-comedic, persona have all led to many people referring to him as a "real-life supervillain."
Depending on how you feel about his new technology, Neuralink, those supervillain superstitions may seem true to you. Elon Musk's Neuralink is a new brain technology that — if it works — promises to revolutionize the world.
But what is Neuralink technology? How does it work?
This article will walk you through everything you need to know about this fascinating new technology, so keep reading below.
Neuralink, in short, is trying to develop an implant that can connect the human brain to a computer or mobile device. Their system involves inserting micron-scale threads into areas of the brain that control movement. The threads contain electrodes and will be able to read areas of the brain and transmit them to the computer.
The brain is built on interactions between neurons — 86 billion of which are in our brain. Neurons are connected through synapses, which send signals through axon-dendrite connections. Neurons communicate through electrical signals, which are generated by the brain.
Neuralink puts electrodes near neurons in the brain. They claim to be able to record these neuron interactions and decode the information represented by these neurons.
This may sound like science fiction, but it is Neuralink's belief that interactions in neuron-related parts of the brain can be decoded to represent individual movements. The neurons in the brain that carry information, they believe, can give us insights into what we see, feel, and think.
Essentially, the Neuralink team perceives the mind as a product of the brain. They believe that with the right technology, we can read and decode each one of our thoughts by the signals that send them. They also believe we can use this power for good.
Neuralink believes that it's best to monitor the brain and interact with it from the inside. Though it's possible to monitor the brain from outside of the head, they compare that experience to listening to a football came through a microphone placed on the outside of a stadium.
They believe that in order to gain the best readings on the brain, they have to get right up inside of it. One can only record action spikes from individual neurons from inside of the brain, and so they view it as the only option.
They also believe that by directly stimulating the right sequence across electrodes, the desired sensation can be felt, such as a visual experience, or even the sensation of touch. They also believe they can wake up damaged parts of the brain, and reverse the movement defects/paralysis that comes from Parkinson's.
Neuralink essentially has to deal in the field of precision-automated brain surgery. The threads that they're putting into the brain that contain electrodes are so thin that they can't be inserted by a human hand. They're working on a robotic system that can place the threads where they need to go.
The threads are all connected to the first-ever neural implant, the Link, which is stored in a safe area of the head. The link is a sealed implant device that processes, stimulate, and transmits neural signals. You can essentially look at it as serving the purpose of a second brain.
A charger is also a key piece of technology. The Neuralink is attempting to introduce a charger that wirelessly connects to the implant, and charges its battery from outside. (Yes, it's okay to laugh at the thought of connecting a charger to your head.)
Currently, one of the biggest focuses of Neuralink technology is creating a fully operational brain-machine interface, or BMI. These are technologies that allow a piece of computing to interact directly with the brain.
They believe that BMI is, in essence, the next step for humanity. If a computer can communicate directly with a brain, then someone with complete paralysis can express themselves through that computer. It also means the computer could rewrite some of the functions of the brain.
One of the key goals of the Neuralink development team is the Neuralink App. This app will be designed, no joke, to allow you to control your smartphone, keyboard, and mouse, by just thinking about them.
Of course, humans are not used to controlling things with their brains. That's why the app comes equipped with exercises to guide people through controlling their devices just by thinking.
Once again, this might seem like science fiction to most people. However, the people at Neuralink just view this as a similar step to driving a car. Their vision of the future is one where people learn to control things with their brains as a right of passage to growing up.
The app would come with Bluetooth capability, so one could control any number of home devices with Neuralink.
While this is the scope of the Neuralink App itself, there's no telling the amount of app-related technologies that Neuralink could help out with. If Neuralink works, it could revolutionize the way people communicate via text and speech-synthesis. It could also change the way people use the creative process, fashioning pieces of art, photography, and writing simply from their thoughts.
People have split opinions on Neuralink.
On the one hand, Elon Musk has developed a status similar to that of a scientific popstar. He has many people in his corner who will defend everything he does. In all fairness, the man has been on the cutting edge of some of the world's latest and greatest technologies.
Max Hodak, the president of Neuralink, said of Elon that "you better be careful telling him something is impossible." This quote demonstrates the faith people have in Elon Musk.
However, this can raise some eyebrows and cause some concerns. Quotes like the one listed above raise the question — do people believe in Neuralink, or do they just believe in Elon Musk? It's one thing if you believe in what a rockstar can do because art is subjective; but in the cold-hard world of science, belief just isn't enough.
It's no wonder why many people are crying cult of personality to Elon Musk. Whereas he based himself on business-related, obtainable goals in the past, many of the projects he's gotten himself into in recent years — such as the hyperloop, developed by The Boring Company.
It's difficult to move on to what scientists think about Neuralink independently from Elon Musk because he's become so involved with it. A lot of the talk about Neuralink revolves around the over-the-top advertising used by the company.
Take for example Dr. John Krakuer. When asked about his opinions on Neuralink, he expressed optimism about their goals and the potential help they can bring to people with spinal cord injuries.
However, he went on to say that Musk's goals are far overstated. He mentioned that in today's world, it's tough to innovate since internet culture forces everyone to stand out and over-promote to gain any level of success.
Krakauer also raised ethical concerns that not everyone is considering. He wonders if it's even the right time to focus on creating technology like this. He points out that something like this might increase the gap between the rich and the poor, which isn't what we want right now.
Krakauer also cautioned scientists to think of the ethics of putting a chip in people's brains and to make absolutely sure that the Neuralink is safe before it's even thought about being taken to market.
Neuralink, on their website, ensures that safety is a key part of their design philosophy. Obviously, when we're dealing with the world of high-tech brain surgery, and inserting things into the brain, safety is a major concern.
There are many safety issues with inserting BMI into someone's brain that are on par with traditional neurosurgery risks. Certain people have negative — and potentially fatal — reactions to anesthesia.
However, while some of these risks aren't necessarily unique to Neuralink, an ethical question pops up because surgery for Neuralink isn't mandatory. Is it truly safe and ethical to let people get mandatory brain surgery — especially when it isn't for medical purposes?
It's one thing of Neuralink is used for those suffering from disabilities. But is that going to be the only demographic Neuralink markets towards?
It's tough to draw any conclusions about Neuralink.
On the one hand, its goals are over-the-top, so far unsafe, and not necessarily what we need in our society right now. There's a very real possibility that its effects are being stated due to the social clout that the champion of the company has.
On the other hand, if it works, it might just change our world.
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