The public learned a lot more about Elon Musk’s new company, Neuralink, on Thursday in the form of a lengthy blog post on WaitButWhy, the highly entertaining and very smart blog from Tim Urban, who is a bit of a Musk fan.
Using his trademark humor and some stick-figure cartooning, Urban explains Musk’s vision for Neuralink; Musk’s own words don’t even appear until the end of the post, when a lengthy quotation outlines what Musk believes will be the practical use of the technology his company will develop: helping the elderly maintain their cognitive abilities as they age.
Neuralink, despite rumors, did not turn out to be a project exclusively devoted to neural lace. The broader aim is the same as that of neural lace, though: to help merge the human brain with machines through “brain-machine interfaces,” or BMIs. This concept may sound rather terrifying, but as Musk explains, the foremost benefit of achieving that — at least, initially — will be that humans are able to maintain their mental functioning as they get older, or regain it after they’ve experienced an injury. And that’s actually a pretty comforting idea.
Musk describes using brain-machine interfaces for aiding those with mental impairments:
“The first use of the technology will be to repair brain injuries as a result of stroke or cutting out a cancer lesion, where somebody’s fundamentally lost a certain cognitive element. It could help with people who are quadriplegics or paraplegics by providing a neural shunt from the motor cortex down to where the muscles are activated.”
Musk then explains the aging benefit:
“It can help with people who, as they get older, have memory problems and can’t remember the names of their kids, through memory enhancement, which could allow them to function well to a much later time in life—the medically advantageous elements of this for dealing with mental disablement of one kind or another, which of course happens to all of us when we get old enough, are very significant.”
All of that sounds pretty awesome. Getting older pretty much defines the human condition, though — what will change about our civilization if the mental complications of aging are removed?
The WaitButWhy post goes on to say that, eventually, “BMIs will begin to emerge that people without disabilities want.”
That next step is even more difficult to imagine right now. First things first: Let’s see how Musk’s Neuralink company does at actually developing any initial part of this technology. It may take a long time.