Neuralink, the Elon Musk-led startup that the multi-entrepreneur founded in 2017, is working on technology that’s based around ‘threads’ which it says can be implanted in human brains with much less potential impact to the surrounding brain tissue vs. what’s currently used for today’s brain-computer interfaces. “Most people don’t realize, we can solve that with a chip,” Musk said to kick off Neuralink’s event, talking about some of the brain disorders and issues the company hopes to solve.
Musk also said that long-term Neuralink really is about figuring out a way to “achieve a sort of symbiosis with artificial intelligence.” “This is not a mandatory thing,” he added. “This is something you can choose to have if you want.”
For now, however, the aim is medical and the plan is to use a robot that Neuralink has created that operates somewhat like a “sewing machine” to implant this threads, which are incredibly thin I(like, between 4 and 6 μm, which means about one-third the diameter of the thinnest human hair), deep within a person’s brain tissue, where it will be capable of performing both read and write operations at very high data volume.
All of this sounds incredibly far-fetched, and to some extent it still is: Neuralink’s scientists told The New York Times in a briefing on Monday that the company has a “long way to go” before it can get anywhere near offering a commercial service. The main reason for breaking cover and talking more freely about what they’re working on, the paper reported, is that they’ll be better able to work out in the open and publish papers, which is definitely an easier mode of operation for something that requires as much connection with the academic and research community as this.
Neuralink co-founder and president Max Hodak told the NYT that he’s optimistic Neuralink’s tech could theoretically see use somewhat soon in medical use, including potential applications enabling amputees to regain mobility via use of prosthetics and reversing vision, hearing or other sensory deficiencies. It’s hoping to actually begin working with human test subjects as early as next year, in fact, including via possible collaboration with neurosurgeons at Stanford and other institutions.
The current incarnation of Neuralink’s tech would involve drilling actual holes into a subject’s skull in order to insert the ultra thin threads, but future iterations will shift to using lasers instead to create tiny holes that are much less invasive and essentially not felt by a patient, Hodak told the paper. Working on humans next year with something that meets this description for a relatively new company might seem improbable, but Neuralink did demonstrate its technology used on a laboratory rat this week, with performance levels that exceed today’s systems in terms of data transfer. The data from the rat was gathered via a USB-C port in its head, and it provided about 10x more what the best current sensors can offer, according to Bloomberg.
Neurlalink’s advances vs. current BCI methods also include the combined thinness and flexibility of the ‘threads’ used, but one scientist wondered about their longevity when exposed to the brain, which contains a salt mix fluid that can damage and ultimately degrade plastics over time. The plan is also that the times electrodes implanted in the brain will be able to communicate wirelessly with chips outside the brain, providing real time monitoring with unprecedented freedom of motion, without any external wires or connections.
Elon Musk is bankrolling the majority of this endeavour as well as acting as its CEO, with $100 million of the $158 million its raised so far coming from the SpaceX and Tesla CEO. It has 90 employees thus far, and still seems to be hiring aggressively based on its minimal website (which basically only contains job ads). Elon Musk also noted at the outset of today’s presentation that the main reason for the event was in fact to recruit new talent.
One of Elon Musk’s stealthier endeavors is set to become a lot less stealthy tonight, with a presentation set for 8 PM PT (11 PM ET) streaming live directly via the embedded YouTube video above, in which we’ll learn a lot more about Neuralink, the company Musk founded in 2017 to work on brain control interfaces (BCIs) and essentially part of his larger strategy to help mitigate the risks of AI and enhance its potential benefits.
Here’s what we do know about Neuralink already: Its initial goal, at least as of two years ago, was to figure out how brain interfaces could be helpful in alleviating the symptoms of chronic medical conditions, including epilepsy. This goal will involve the development of “ultra high bandwidth brain-machine interfaces to connect humans and computers,” which is the only formal description Neuralink provides of its overall mission on its own website.
In a post on Wait Buy Why back when the company first broke cover, we got a lot more in-depth background about what problem Musk wants to solve and why. Summarized, Neuralink’s mission is very much on trend with Musk’s other ventures, in that it hopes to help humans avoid something he perceives as an existential threat in order that we may survive, thrive and I guess come up with other potential existential threats for him to also then solve.
Ultimately, Neuralink seems to be aiming well beyond its initial exploration of medical technology, which was really just a way to potentially get testing faster with a practical application that’s easier to work with in terms of rules and regulators. Musk’s goal, per the Wait But Why explainer, is actually to eliminate the “compression” that happens when we translate our thoughts into language, and then into input via keyboard, mouse, etc. before actually transmitting it to a computer. Taking away the need to compress and then decompress the signal, in other words, will make communication between people and computers much faster, lossless and very high bandwidth.
This has an existential angle because this is a key step, Musk believes, in ensuring that humanity can keep up with the increasingly advanced AI it’s developing. So to avoid a doomsday scenario where the robots take over, basically Musk proposes more or less mind-melding with the robots instead.
That was a lot to digest two years ago — it’s wild to think about what Neuralink may have done in the interim to work toward or modify this goal. Luckily, we won’t have to wait much longer. That stream kicks off at 8 PM PT (11 PM ET) and will be carried live directly at the top of this post and on Neuralink.com.