Neuralink is a neural tech company based in California. It was co-founded by visionary Elon Musk back in 2016. Recently, the company explained its product in a live demonstration event after keeping its details hidden from the public all this while.
It has designed a coin-sized chip to be implanted in the brain, which will be capable of recording the brain’s activity as well as stimulating it. The chip will be connected to wires which will be 10 times thinner than a normal human hair. The wires will fan out through the brain and capture neuron signals.
Seems like something straight out of a science fiction movie, doesn’t it?
Elon Musk claims that this technology will be able to provide solutions to many neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, Dementia, Autism, traumatic brain injuries, spinal cord injuries, paralysis, Parkinson’s disease, blindness, hearing loss, OCD, memory loss, addiction, depression etc. He further claims that the device has the ability to play music directly in the brain.
But all this is not the ultimate aim of the company. Musk has long feared that Artificial Intelligence will overshadow the human race, that it will make it redundant for many jobs. Through this technology, Musk wants to create a symbiosis between humans and AI. But there is a long way to go before that can be achieved.
A few years back, the technology for dealing with the aforementioned diseases had already evolved. Some 200,000 people across the world already have brain implants for problems like paralysis, traumatic brain injuries, depression, addiction etc. Since 2012, paralyzed patients have been able to control a robotic arm. Then, what’s new with Neuralink’s technology? Surely none of us expects Elon Musk to do something which has already been achieved. Neurologists have found 3 major advancements-
- The company plans to use flexible wires which will be thinner than hair. This will ensure that the brain is not damaged. Brain is a very soft tissue and thick hard wires can cause inflammation and damage.
- The surgery, which is expected to take an hour, will be performed by a robot/sewing machine like equipment instead of a human being. A surgery as complicated as this is best performed without experiencing human emotions like pressure. Also, the brain tends to move even during the surgery because of continuous breathing and heartbeats. The equipment will read the brain movement and alter the movement of the robotic needle accordingly, something which cannot be achieved in a surgery performed by humans.
- There will be better recording of brain signals by picking them up as close to the source as possible.
Neurologists feel that it’s a major breakthrough as people will be better able to control their robotic limbs. They feel that it’ll be an even bigger achievement if the feeling of touch could be incorporated as well.
The live demonstration event was conducted in August. It showed the working on a pig which had the surgery 2 months prior to the event. The company has also conducted tests on rats, monkeys and many other primates.
Till now, the company has received a funding of $158 million; $100 million of which have been invested by Elon Musk himself.
Competition is inevitable and this industry is no exception. Startups like Kernel, Paradromics and NeroPace are also working on a similar technology. Medical device giant Medtronic PLC has already been making implants in patients affected by neurological dysfunctions. Let’s see if Neuralink is able to beat them all.
There are numerous issues with this technology. Ethical issues are at the forefront. While it’s a boon for people who are suffering from neurological diseases, Musk doesn’t plan to limit himself to this segment of the population. He wants to make it available to the healthy population as well to achieve his dream of fusing humans and AI. If that happens, only the rich will be able to afford it, thus, increasing the wedge between haves and havenots.
Also, neurologists believe that there is no need to place such an invasive device in the healthy population. There is always the risk of infection and hemorrhage.
Skepticism is also there regarding the reliability of the wires as they are too thin. Will they last long enough or break too soon? The Food and Drug Administration doesn’t provide approval for placing such devices in the body unless they are expected to last for a considerable period of time like 10 years.
Generating demand among healthy people will be a problem too. Not many people will agree to implant such a device in their brains when it’s functioning all too well. How does the Neuralink plan to achieve its ultimate objective when there is just a small market?
There have been allegations from former employees that the company has been trying to rush the process. It is said that in order to avoid US approvals, the company has planned to conduct initial trial implants in Russia and China.
Another big concern is regarding data protection. The chip and wires will capture neuron signals and read them. How will the data so collected be protected?
Neuralink and Elon Musk have been making big claims without providing a proper timeline for the roll out of the technology. While some neurologists consider it to be a major breakthrough, many are still skeptical due to a lack of sufficient data on it.
There is hope, but there are concerns too and only the future beholds all the answers.