What do we know so far about Elon Musk’s controversial Neuralink project?

While many of us recognise the name Elon Musk as the CEO of Tesla, there are a variety of other projects in development that are run by the billionaire that are not as well known but still have the possibility to change the way we use technology forever. You may have heard of the Hyperloop project for example, which envisions citizens in Los Angeles and San Francisco being able to travel in tubes between the two cities in 30 minutes. Likewise, Neuralink, is another one of these highly futuristic concepts.

How does the technology work?

Founded in 2016 the Neuralink company is a medical research firm that is aiming to develop “neural lace” technology, which involves implanting tiny electrodes into the brain, in order to give humans improved memory capabilities or added artificial intelligence.

In practice, the Neuralink’s implantable device works like a Fitbit in your skull. Comprised of super-thin threads that carry electrodes, data is transferred from your brain to brain-machine interfaces. These threads are 4 to 6 μm in width, which makes them considerably thinner than a human hair and would be implanted by a machine to penetrate the outer surface of the brain, detecting any electrical impulses from nerve cells.

Once these threads have been inserted, they’re connected to the Link, which is placed on the brain’s cortical surface. The procedure should take between one and two hours.

Scientists working on the project suggest that, in the first instance, Neuralink would be looking to “solve important brain and spine problems for people with disabilities.” People with neurological conditions, including those with

blindness, spinal cord injuries, memory loss, or brain damage could use the technology to control phones, computers, or robotic limbs with their mind.

Previous research on BMIs (brain-machine Interfaces) dates back to the 1970s and has proven it can be successful – with early demonstrations involving patients using external electrodes to move an on-screen cursor. Neuralink’s key breakthrough in this respect has been the number of electrodes it has been able to engage on the brain, (10x more than any other device) this would allow for unprecedented levels of data and throughput if used on a human.

From an artificial intelligence perspective, Musk hopes that in the future two humans would be able to communicate using the technology, without having to talk to each other. The computer you are interfaced with would also be able to send your brain signals too- measuring your temperature, pressure and movements, and warning you if you were at risk of a heart attack or stroke, for example.

How is the technology progressing?

In August 2020, Musk unveiled a pig called Gertrude with a coin-sized computer chip in her brain to demonstrate how brain recordings would be delivered to a computer in real time while the brain’s owner is moving around and interacting with the world.

And, in April 2021, Neuralink released a video where a monkey was using the technology to play the video game Pong with its mind. The macaque monkey, named Pager, was first taught to play the video game with a joystick, and was rewarded with a fruit smoothie. During this process, the Neuralink device recorded the information about which neurons were firing to control which movements. Then the joystick was disconnected, leaving the monkey to control gameplay with its mind only.

Both these developments are significant, with the latter showing the first case of a wireless BMI. The company has also applied to start human trials and is awaiting confirmation from the relevant legislative body, the FDA, in the USA.

Remaining concerns

There are obvious concerns about placing electronics inside people’s heads, especially if this is going to be inside them permanently. Therefore, before the Neuralink project comes into fruition, there need to be studies looking at the long-term effects of the threads on the brain including looking into the durability, the infection rates, the heat generated from the device, and how many links can one brain physically take. These are questions that can’t currently be answered with 100% certainty despite the trials on animals seemingly going fine.

While the brain is still mysterious, and the neurological causes of things like anxiety and addiction are still unclear, this technology could revolutionise how we interact with technology. It is definitely worth keeping an eye on any developments made in the coming years.

If you have any questions or other technology queries comment below or tweet @techtroublesho1.

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