Neuralink and You: A Human-AI Symbiosis
The Neuralink brain implant will be much more than a medical device. Elon Musk says it will drive a symbiosis between humans and artificial intelligence.
What Will It Be Like to Get a Neuralink?
"Good morning! I'm Dr Benedict Egg and I'll be supervising your Neuralink insertion today. Do you have any questions?"
"Yes, Doc. What the hell am I doing? Will it hurt?"
"Hardly, ha, ha! We'll inject a local anaesthesic before the surgical robot gets to work."
"Wait—did you say robot?!"
"Didn't you read any of the patient pamphlets? The surgery is fully automated. After all, a robot is far steadier than these shaky old digits, ha! Here, take a look at the fellow:"
"Oh, he's kind of cute actually. That makes me feel much better."
"Exactly! And his shiny exterior helps distract you from the invasive brain surgery! I get quite distracted myself sometimes, just marvelling at it."
"You'll be pleased to know the robot will only remove a coin-sized part of your skull, twenty-three millimetres in diameter. It will insert the electrodes into your brain without hitting any blood vessels. And the chip itself will sit on the outside of your brain, flush with your skull!"
"You're right, that is rather pleasing. Say, what was it like when you got yours done?"
"Me? Ha! I'm waiting for the long term impact studies. I am a scientist, after all. But one day, I'm going to sign the whole family up. Even our Dachshund will be linked."
"Please shut up."
"Alrighty. Do you have any more questions about your Neuralink insertion? I have a lunch date with Ms Hollandaise at twelve."
"Twelve o'clock! That's just over an hour away!"
"It is! Robots are terribly efficient like that. A few hours in recovery and you'll be home by dinnertime."
"Oh, sod it. If it's good enough for Elon, it's good enough for me. Hook me up, Doc."
What is Neuralink?
Neuralink is a next generation brain-computer interface that's already proven to work in pigs. Pigs! They're basically human.
Before you freak out, know that brain implants are not new. They've been used since the 1970s for replacing essential brain functions lost to stroke or head injury. Fifty years on, neural implants are now used to treat seizures, paralysis, Parkinson's disease, and even clinical depression.
So what's the big deal with Neuralink? Why did Elon Musk team up with neuroscientists, biochemists, and robotics engineers in 2016 to create a new kind of brain implant?
For one, Neuralink identified that traditional neural implants can't transfer information to and from the brain. It also found that existing devices have a limited number of relatively bulky electrodes. This restricts their action to the surface of the brain and creates a low ceiling on their functional scope.
So Neuralink decided to re-engineer brain implants and the way they're installed. The electrodes in the Link v0.9 are just microns thick, allowing them to thread deeper into the brain without causing damage or potential bleeding. And deeper penetration means greater, targeted action.
This also necessitated the invention of a neurosurgical robot to insert the Neuralink with more precision than human hands.
In just five years of development, Neuralink has engineered the next generation of brain implants. The Link is not only a therapeutic device; it's a brain-machine interface for which Musk fantasizes all kinds of lifestyle applications down the road.
What Does Neuralink Do?
Initially, Neuralink will help people with paralysis to regain independence in their day-to-day lives. They'll be able to control their computers and mobile devices with their minds—to send emails, browse the internet, and express creativity.
This premise was recently demonstrated in a nine-year-old macaque called Pager, who successfully played the computer game Pong with his mind.
First he was trained to play Pong with a joystick, being rewarded with a sip of banana smoothie for doing so. The Link installed in his brain tracked the electrical activity associated with these movements.
Next, they removed the middle man—his hands. The Link successfully decoded his neural impulses and sent them to the Pong computer. The effect was one of mind control: Pager's mind controlled the machine.
The First Neuralink Trials in Humans
In 2021, the first Neuralink human trials will see quadriplegics with spinal cord injuries receive four microchips that connect up to 4,000 neurons. As Neuralink's adaptive decoding algorithms evolve, it will gain access to more channels of communication, more brain areas, and more types of neural information.
One day, Neuralink will enable amputees to control their prosthetic limbs, even generating sensory feedback to make their limbs feel real. Deafness, blindness, addiction, and a range of other neurological disorders could be treated by the Link.
"It could, in principle, fix anything that's wrong with the brain." - Elon Musk
You know Elon won't stop there. Once the demand for therapeutic applications is exhausted, the plan is to make Neuralink accessible to the mainstream, offering recreational uses and cognitive enhancements. There are countless opportunities on the cards, just as soon as all the safety issues are ironed out...
Is Neuralink Dangerous?
Safety is paramount when you're tinkering around with the brain. And while traditional brain implant devices are already approved by the FDA, Neuralink is sufficiently modified as to require its own approval process.
To this end, Neuralink has already completed pre-clinical trials in animals and will embark on Phase I clinical trials in humans in 2021. Larger and more robust studies will form Phase II and III trials before the FDA can approve it for general widescale use.
Neuralink has reduced the risk of implant insertion in two ways:
1. Neurosurgical Robots
Currently, brain implants are inserted by human hands while the patient is under general anaesthesia. This carries inherent risks like postoperative cognitive dysfunction, which increase with the duration of surgery.
Neuralink's solution was to engineer a surgical robot to perform the installation with far greater efficiency. This reduces the time patients have to be knocked out.
The company is also eyeing the potential to insert Links while recipients are awake, managing pain and anxiety with local anaesthesia and mild sedatives. This is a significant step for what will one day be elective surgery outside of therapeutic need.
2. Precision Engineering
The electrodes of traditional brain implants are sufficiently thick that they risk puncturing blood vessels and causing bleeding in the brain. Not good.
Neuralink has countered this risk by developing much finer electrodes to stimulate the brain, inserted with a needle the width of a neuron. Once again, the surgical robot is critical in allowing precision threading between blood vessels and deep into the brain.
How Will Neuralink Technology Affect The Brain?
What about the cognitive effects of integrating Neuralink into the brain? Is it really safe to upgrade your mind with zeroes and ones?
That's the question. While we understand a great deal about the human brain, we don't know it all. We certainly haven't nailed the cognitive and emotional processing to be able to think our way out of anxiety and depression. And we know very little about how the brain will respond to real-time communication with computers offering unlimited sensory input.
You already interface with machines on a continual basis. When you check your email, browse the internet, and play video games, you're interacting with a whole heap of sensory data. It's just that your eyes and hands hold you back: reading, comprehension, and typing slow the experience to a speed your brain can handle.
Neuralink takes away all those bandwidth constraints. Once you're linked, you will, in theory, be able to scan two websites simultaneously. Or ten. Or thousands—while gaming.
The natural limit will be your capacity for focused awareness on data delivered by the Link. So Neuralink's goal will be to facilitate a vast unconscious interface, allowing you to upload new languages, martial arts techniques, and chemistry degrees in a matter of seconds, Matrix-style.
How Will Neuralink Change Society?
When will Neuralink be available to everyday folk, who aren't frankly terrified by this human-AI symbiosis? When can we stream music to our minds, have telepathic phone calls, and play VR games with full immersion? When can we record our dreams, replay unconscious memories, and show them to our psychiatrists?
In time, is the answer. It will be years before you or I can sign up for Neuralink, and Musk assures us we'll see it coming. But why is he so keen to forge this path anyway? Surely, a man with his talents is satisfied with the output of his own brain. Do we really need an upgrade?
I'm afraid we do. And it's all thanks to the rise of artificial intelligence. Elon's main concern is that sometime in the 21st century, AI will surpasses humanity. When that happens, we'll be left for dust as a species. The AI will run our world; not in a Terminator-style robot war, but rather a fast-paced infusion of technological algorithms making micro and macro decisions on our behalf.
Take YouTube as a living example of how computers drive human experience and behaviour. YouTube is designed to feed you more content based on your historic viewing habits. You might be a palaeontologist with a love of French wine and the works of Byron. But watch one cat video on YouTube and your feed is forever populated with more cat videos. Naturally, you take the bait. Now YouTube's algorithm thinks you're a certified felinophile and recommends all the cats.
The upshot is your viewing habits are influenced heavily by a flawed AI algorithm. The effect extends beyond cats: the infiltration of dangerous political ideologies into mainstream society can be blamed, at least in part, on YouTube's recommendation algorithm. There's no doubt these algorithms can improve, but they can also be tooled by those at the reigns, and with untold consequences. And it's not just YouTube.
Artificial intelligence is everywhere. And when it surpasses human intelligence it will no longer need our input to evolve. It will run our stock markets, our social calendars, and our doctor appointments. It will tell us what to study, who to marry, and when to have babies.
Super-AI will control our lives. And yet, it may never truly have a handle on what it is we really need as human beings, especially when those need so often conflict with our wants.
So we need to get in on it. We need to become the AI. Today's Neuralink is a serious starting point for a high-bandwidth brain-machine interface that will allow us to merge with AI for real. Because if you can't beat them—join them.
"We can actually go along for the ride... and we can effectively have the option of merging with AI." - Elon Musk
Is Neuralink Ethical?
However, not everyone is sold on the idea. For some ethicists, merging with AI presents more problems than it solves.
Neuralink's brain-machine interface will eventually infringe on the nature of being human. This certainly ruffles some religious feathers. Linked humans will experience massive personality and identity shifts, being able to think faster and more creatively, yet with untold consequences on their emotions and behaviours.
Then there are privacy concerns. Our internet searches and social profiles already expose a lot of private information via our digital body extensions. When Neuralink converts us into cyborgs, our conscious filter will be removed. We'll be hooked in to the digital world 24/7 via our every thought and experience.
So what happens when our minds are encoded into digital form and released to corporate advertisers, or governments who want to monitor us for homicidal inklings?
This mind-machine symbiosis is a delicate path to tread.
Of course, this isn't holding Neuralink back. Because you know humans: if we can wield a new technology, we probably will. Perhaps we should. We just don't know yet. Do you?
Should I Get a Neuralink?
Imagine we're 20 years down the road. It may not even take that long. The world is already changing faster than we can comprehend.
At first, getting a cognition-enhancing Link installed will be rare, having an elite, cutting-edge status. Celebrities, rich folk, and influencers will do it, lured by what it can offer. Then the technology will inch its way into your life. Your friend's cousin will get one. Then your accountant. Then your sister.
There will be a day when you can take a $20,000 loan to get a Neuralink interface, with the guarantee that you can command a $200,000 salary with your mental enhancement. How will you deny that logic?
Societal pressure will increase. You'll be a 50-year-old, out-skilled by every other member of his bionically enhanced team. Your boss will tell you to get a Link or be redeployed to the basement. Will you do it then?
In the blink of a generational eye, young people will take up Neuralink because it's the world they've been born into. Perhaps we'll even Link them as babies, allowing the brain to go through all its developmental stages with an AI interface from infancy. Maybe we'll call them Natural AIs.
We may balk at the rate of change we've seen in our lifetimes, yet the 21st century is only accelerating that pace. The real question probably isn't whether you should get a Neuralink when it becomes available, but what will you do with that power once it's lodged omnipotently inside your head?