Musk aims to get in­side all of our heads with his brain chip

It may sound more like science fic­tion but the bil­lion­aire space and car chief will un­veil his neu­ral lace pro­to­type,

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Technology Intelligen­ce - finds Hasan Chowd­hury

In a science fic­tion se­ries known as The Cul­ture, Scot­tish nov­el­ist Iain M Banks dreams up a fu­ture, in­ter­stel­lar so­ci­ety in which hu­mans made ad­vance­ments in in­tel­li­gence with a brain-com­puter in­ter­face known as “neu­ral lace” im­planted in their skulls.

For Elon Musk, the bil­lion­aire chief ex­ec­u­tive of Tesla and SpaceX and self-ad­mit­ted fan of neu­ral lace, tak­ing a crack at his own ver­sion seemed a no-brainer, lead­ing to the launch of a se­cre­tive firm in 2016 called Neu­ralink that would ex­plore the tech­nol­ogy’s po­ten­tial.

Four years on, and Musk is ready to show the world his plans to hack the hu­man brain. The en­tre­pre­neur will to­day un­veil a demon­stra­tion of a pro­to­type de­vice that could one day be placed in­side our skulls, mak­ing us part-hu­man, part­cy­borg.

His rea­sons to do this are two-fold. At one level, he sees an im­planted med­i­cal chip work­ing as a brain-com­puter in­ter­face that could help us bet­ter un­der­stand neu­ro­log­i­cal diseases and treat them.

At a deeper level, the chip is meant to boost hu­man brain power so that we can keep up with a fu­ture shaped by ar­ti­fi­cial gen­eral in­tel­li­gence. Even in a “be­nign AI sce­nario” we will be left be­hind, Musk has pre­vi­ously as­serted. “If you can’t beat it, join it,” he once claimed.

But how ex­actly would it work, can it live up to the hype, and what would it be used for? Though de­tails have been rel­a­tively scarce, there is some in­sight into the me­chan­ics be­hind the Neu­ralink chip. At four by four mil­lime­tres, it is claimed the chip will con­nect to a thou­sand “threads” thin­ner than a hu­man hair, which en­ter the brain through four holes drilled into the skull. Elec­trodes em­bed­ded in the threads, which are “sewed” to the chip, can then pick up elec­tri­cal sig­nals from neu­rons that in­di­cate ac­tiv­ity in the brain that is then trans­lated into move­ment or be­hav­iour.

In the med­i­cal arena, early ver­sions of the im­plant could al­low paral­ysed pa­tients to con­trol their smart­phones. Later ver­sions could build on ex­ist­ing pro­ce­dures such as deep brain sim­u­la­tion for the treat­ment of Parkin­son’s dis­ease.

Along­side any ther­a­peu­tic ap­pli­ca­tions, Musk’s goal is to ad­vance hu­man in­tel­li­gence with the chip. He sees it sit­ting on top of the lim­bic sys­tem, the more prim­i­tive part of the brain, and the cor­tex, the cere­bral part, as a third layer that aug­ments their in­tel­li­gence. Some sci­en­tists are bullish on the prospects. Prof Paul Matthews, head of the depart­ment of brain sciences at Im­pe­rial Col­lege London, be­lieves the chal­lenges in un­der­stand­ing brain sig­nals are more an en­gi­neer­ing prob­lem, which Musk is fo­cused on over­com­ing.

“If you have a very thick elec­trode and you’re record­ing from hun­dreds of nerve cells, un­der­stand­ing how they’re com­mu­ni­cat­ing among them­selves is a chal­lenge,” he says. “But if you can get down to one or just a few, it be­comes eas­ier to de­code.”

There is some prece­dent for what Musk is at­tempt­ing to achieve. BrainGate, an or­gan­i­sa­tion formed of a team of re­searchers from top uni­ver­si­ties in the US, has kicked-off clin­i­cal tri­als for a brain-com­puter in­ter­face with a sim­i­lar am­bi­tion.

By im­plant­ing a chip in the brain, as pro­posed by Musk, BrainGate’s aim is to use tech­nol­ogy to re­store com­mu­ni­ca­tion and mo­bil­ity in peo­ple with neu­ro­log­i­cal dis­or­ders, such as mo­tor neu­rone dis­ease.

In one trial, the mi­cro-elec­trodes of the chip and a com­puter man­aged to “de­code” neu­ral sig­nals in real-time of peo­ple with paral­y­sis in their hand and arm, al­low­ing them to con­trol a cur­sor on a com­puter “sim­ply by think­ing about the move­ment”.

“The tech­nol­ogy ex­ists to­day in more than just a proof of con­cept for

record­ing from many neu­trons in the brain, de­cod­ing that to un­der­stand some­thing about the way a lim­ited sec­tion of the brain is mak­ing com­pu­ta­tions,” Matthews says.

An­other al­ter­na­tive to Neu­ralink gain­ing trac­tion is built by a Cal­i­for­nian firm called Ker­nel, which be­lieves its non-in­va­sive tech­nol­ogy that al­lows a user to sim­ply pop a helmet on and off that could work as a Fit­bit for the brain.

The com­pany told The Daily

Tele­graph that its helmet could, for ex­am­ple, as­sess the im­pact of an over­con­sump­tion of news on the brain, al­low­ing peo­ple to cu­rate a health­ier in­for­ma­tion diet through a down­sized, more per­son­alised ver­sion of brain scan­ning ma­chines cur­rently used in neu­ro­science lab­o­ra­to­ries and hos­pi­tals.

Grabbing data from brain scans in this way could open the doors to any num­ber of ap­pli­ca­tions, as in­for­ma­tion about the brain could be­come mon­e­tised in the way that mon­i­tor­ing our heart rate, blood pres­sure and sugar lev­els have in other ar­eas.

A his­tory of tri­als in the field makes the Neu­ralink vi­sion of the fu­ture more than a fan­ci­ful van­ity pro­ject then, but not ev­ery­one is con­vinced of its abil­ity to de­liver.

Prof David Curtis, of UCL’s bio­sciences di­vi­sion, sees some lim­ited ap­pli­ca­tions from the kind of deep brain sim­u­la­tion the Neu­ralink might of­fer, par­tic­u­larly in treat­ing things such as ob­ses­sive com­pul­sive dis­or­der. But the use of it to ad­vance in­tel­li­gence by an or­der of mag­ni­tudes? That’s much more com­pli­cated. Curtis ex­plains that to re­ally achieve this, any sort of tech­nol­ogy would re­ally need to be able to parse out the ac­tiv­ity of ev­ery sin­gle in­di­vid­ual neu­ron in the brain and trace its con­nec­tions.

Though elec­trodes are get­ting ever closer to this, the chal­lenge of putting this ap­pli­ca­tion into prac­tice is still a mon­u­men­tal one. “Be­ing able to pro­duce thoughts that drive phones and drive ma­chines, this is the im­pres­sion this work is cre­at­ing and this is the bit that is fan­ci­ful,” he says.

Ear­lier this month, Musk claimed the demon­stra­tion would re­veal “neu­rons fir­ing in real time. The ma­trix in the ma­trix” and added “it will blow your mind haha” on Twit­ter.

While Musk will re­veal just what this means at 11pm tonight, some are scep­ti­cal. A re­port in science mag­a­zine

Stat claimed for­mer em­ploy­ees were con­cerned about Neu­ralink’s ag­gres­sive time­line. One ac­count claimed re­searchers at­tempted to wire thou­sands of elec­trodes into a sheep’s brain in a sin­gle sur­gi­cal pro­ce­dure, which “failed”. Neu­ralink said some claims in the piece were in­ac­cu­rate.

It is not just tech­no­log­i­cal bar­ri­ers in the way. The reg­u­la­tory hur­dles ahead are likely to stretch out the times­pan in which any fea­si­ble prod­uct could be com­mer­cialised. Musk ad­mit­ted in 2019 that all of this will be a “slow process”, with a stamp of ap­proval needed from the US Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion.

“All of this will oc­cur quite slowly. It’s not go­ing to be like sud­denly, Neu­ralink will have this in­cred­i­ble neu­ral lace and start tak­ing over peo­ple’s brains. It will take a long time, and you’ll see it com­ing,” he said.

Mean­while, a re­port pub­lished yes­ter­day by RAND, a non-profit think tank, de­tailed how such tech­nol­ogy was gain­ing in­creas­ing at­ten­tion from the US mil­i­tary in com­bat sce­nar­ios, and would war­rant close scru­tiny at a le­gal and eth­i­cal level.

De­spite the hur­dles, in Musk’s hands it is un­wise to rule any­thing out.

Elon Musk will un­veil his pro­to­type chip in the brain later to­day. The ty­coon hopes it could help ad­vance hu­man in­tel­li­gence

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