In between upending the auto industry and trying to get people to Mars, Elon Musk is also heading a company called Neuralink that wants to put coin-sized implants in human skulls, directly connected to the brain, using robot surgeons. Why would anyone want a brain implant? Because it could be used to help people with severe spinal cord injuries walk again, help blind people see again, or help deaf people hear again. It could also cure chronic pain, anxiety, and perhaps even depression.
"If you can sense what people are trying to do with their limbs, you can implant another device at the point of the spine injury and create a 'neural shunt'," Musk explains. "A spinal injury is basically a broken wire." The same applies to a range of other neurological disorders — if you can change the signals, you can change the message.
Recruiting hard, brain experience optional — Neuralink hosted a live-streamed press conference on Friday to discuss its progress, and Musk was quick to point out a part of the purpose of the event was as a recruitment drive. He says the company is 100 people today but hopes to grow to "10,000 people," or in Musk's favored parlance, increase the size of the team "by several orders of magnitude."
Musk says Neuralink is looking for people to help us create the chips, write the software they'll need, and robotics engineers. He says the company is especially keen on people who've worked on a shipped product, "especially complex electronics" and that "you do not need to have prior experiences on brains."
This is a Black Mirror plot, right? — Asked whether Neuralink implants will ever be able to save and replay memories, Musk says "probably," and that he's aware of the dystopian implications of that. "Essentially if you have a whole-brain interface, everything that's encoded in memory you could upload. Or backup. Or restore. You could potentially download them into a new body or a robot body," Musk explains, adding that "The future is going to be weird."
Before it gets to that point, though, there's a lot of work to do. The Neuralink team says a more realistic and short-term goal is for the technology to get good enough that a quadriplegic could use it to "play StarCraft."
"A Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires" — The latest version of the Neuralink implant is 23mm x 8mm, which makes it small enough already to be embedded in an adult's skull — which is about 10mm thick. The device has 1,024 channels, all of which can receive or send signals. It communicates with the brain via incredibly thin wires which are inserted into it directly. The recipient's brain is mapped ahead of the procedure so that the robotic insertion avoids any arteries. Musk explains the wires are thin enough that there's no bleeding and no long-term neurological damage.
The device already includes temperature and pressure senses, hence Musk's comparison to a fitness tracker or smartphone. It offers all-day battery life and uses inductive charging and — for now, at least — communicates with a smartphone or similar device using low-energy Bluetooth.
Neuralink envisions "installation" taking less than an hour, without general anesthesia, and with the patient able to leave the hospital the same day. The company also says that it's tested the device on pigs, and has proven it can implant it and later remove it without any adverse effects to the porcine test subjects. It says pigs' energetic natures and fondness for "headbutting" proves the robustness of the implants. And that removability means it'll be possible to upgrade the devices over time — no early adopter wants to be stuck with first-gen tech years later, after all.
A human heads-up display — Noble uses like overcoming paralysis, blindness or other sensory failures, injuries, or degeneration aside, Musk says Neuralink could conceivably be used to impart "superhuman vision" by using a headset or other hardware to "dynamically adjust what's fed into the visual cortex," including radar, infrared, ultraviolet "or any other frequency."
There's also the potential for it to change the way we communicate by letting multiple users with a Neuralink communicate with one another non-verbally. Musk calls it "non-linguistic, consensual, conceptual telepathy."
The future is, indeed, going to be weird.