Neuralink is about to make its grand debut.
The Elon Musk-founded company plans to host an event in San Francisco on July 16 starting at 8 p.m. Pacific time, with a livestream expected to go live just before the launch. Little is known about the company, except its plans to develop “ultra high bandwidth brain-machine interfaces to connect humans and computers.” The event will give a chance to “hear from members of our team about what we’ve done so far as well as some of our plans for the future.”
Elon Musk, the brain partly behind the startup, has remained relatively quiet about Neuralink’s work, bar one long explainer post in April 2017. While the SpaceX and Tesla CEO has big projects on his plate already, he has regularly stated his goal to link up human brains with machines to stop artificial intelligence from taking over the world, a concern he voiced during the 2018 South by Southwest conference (check out a clip of the video below).
The event could offer a glimpse at an exciting breakthrough. In September 2018, Musk said on The Joe Rogan Experience that Neuralink has “something interesting to announce in a few months that’s at least an order of magnitude better than anything else, probably better than anyone thinks is possible.”
On the eve of the company’s big reveal, here’s five of the questions that still remain about one of the technology industry’s most intriguing firms.
5. Is Neuralink Concerned With A.I. Taking Over Humanity?
One of Musk’s biggest concerns about how innovation could go awry is the rise of super-smart artificial intelligence that act autonomously. To maintain a symbiotic relationship between humans and machines, he has since September 2016 called for the development of brain-to-computer interfaces or another way to “merge with A.I.”
Musk has returned to the idea regularly. He congratulated OpenAI when its system beat a human team at Dota 2 in August 2018, calling for “the neural interface” to “enable human/AI symbiosis.”
In the WaitButWhy post back in April 2017 where Musk first outlined Neuralink, he summed up the issue like this:
We’re going to have the choice of either being left behind and being effectively useless or like a pet—you know, like a house cat or something—or eventually figuring out some way to be symbiotic and merge with AI.
One of the biggest questions ahead of tonight’s event? Is avoiding human obsolescence still Neuralink’s goal, or has the focus shifted as A.I. has developed?
4. Will Neuralink’s First Product Still Focus on Healthcare and Disabilities?
In the WaitButWhy post that first outlined publicly the company’s plans, Musk explained that the first use cases will focus on healthcare and disabilities. This would cover brain injuries from cutting out cancer lesions, and helping people with other severe injuries like strokes.
The goal as outlined by the post is to bring a micron-sized device to market in 2021 that will help with these conditions. This would help fuel the business side of the project, in a similar way to how SpaceX uses routine rocket launches to perfect its technology and advance to broader goals.
This is based on the premise that healthcare still offers a sustainable business model. Depending on how the technology and industry has changed over the past two years, it’s possible that Neuralink has tweaked its plans in some way.
3. How Much Has Changed Since the WaitButWhy Post?
While he hasn’t discussed it much in-depth since, the WaitButWhy post that first elaborated on Neuralink’s plans was very comprehensive and, after two years of investigation, probably needs revision.
The company has floated a series of ideas to connect brains to machines, including “neural dust” that scatters through the cortex, or “neural mesh” that runs through a syringe. This gave the impression that different Neuralink teams were working on different ideas to see what could work, but with time it’s possible the list has been shortened. Speculation on Reddit has suggested the big breakthrough may be in interpreting existing data, rather than the practical problem of figuring out how to non-invasively inject computers into brains.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the Neuralink is the timescale. Beyond working with disabilities, Musk seemed to suggest that a product aimed at the mainstream market is just a decade away:
I think we are about 8 to 10 years away from this being usable by people with no disability … It is important to note that this depends heavily on regulatory approval timing and how well our devices work on people with disabilities.
Has the list of technologies changed, and if so has that shifted the timescale?
2. Does It Use Animal Testing, and If So, How?
One of the big questions raised since Neuralink’s announcement is the role of animal testing. The company has officially remained rather quiet on the topic, but filings and documents reveal that it has explored how to legally test on animals.
Documents uncovered in March 2018 show that Neuralink CEO Jared Birchall wanted to renovate the San Francisco headquarters with a “small operating room for in vivo testing, and a small room to house rodents.” Rodents, the letter explained, are exempt from the Animal Welfare Act. In a follow-up letter, the firm stated it had dropped its plans.
Evidence points to testing at the University of California’s Davis campus. A paper published in April 2019, authored by five scientists linked to Neuralink, used a rat to demonstrate a brain linkup. It used flexible polymer electrodes to relay activity through a circuit board, with mixed results.
The presentation may reveal the extent of this work, and whether Neuralink plans further experiments.
1. How Much of Musk’s Time Will Neuralink Use?
Musk is a busy man. He’s the CEO of Tesla, the first electric car firm to sell more than 200,000 vehicles in the United States. He’s also the CEO of SpaceX, which developed the first human-designed commercial capsule to autonomously dock to the International Space Station. Two years ago, he also founded The Boring Company, a tunnel-digging venture aimed at reducing traffic in cities.
How does he find the time? Musk said in a May 2017 event that The Boring Company uses “maybe two to three percent” of his time. Around 90 percent of his time is split evenly between Tesla and SpaceX. During a June 2017 interview, he said that Neuralink takes up between three to five percent of his time.
Does this still hold true? Has it increased as the company has developed? When The Boring Company unveiled its latest work in December 2018, it dropped the custom-made pods for the tunnels in favor of running Tesla Model X SUVs through a tunnel. It was a sign of Musk converging his firms to leverage their skills in other areas.
Will Musk take a similar approach with Neuralink?