Neuralink - The Brain's Magical Future?
On August 28th, 2020, Elon Musk - the CEO of Tesla Inc. and co-founder of Neuralink, unveiled a new brain implant, that is aimed to make humans win over certain neurological diseases like Alzheimer's, dementia, and other mental problems like depression, addiction.
Neuralink is a brain-machine interface (BMI) system. It is a coin-shaped chip that can be planted in the brain via a surgical procedure, with the help of a special robot. Apart from helping people to cure severe medical conditions, going forward, this chip may also bridge the gap between A.I. and humans or control machines with the mind!
All of this may seem like a story straight out of science fiction, but it's a reality.
Concept – How it works?
Neuralink, unlike the other brain implants, is a coin-shaped chip. It has around 1024 tiny thread-like electrodes that insert on the outer surface of the brain. It is based on the concept of detecting the electric field generated by the action potential of neurotransmitters.
In simple words, here is an explanation:
As you know, all of our actions and thoughts are controlled by our brain which has billions of neurons (estimated to be around 86 billion). These neurons communicate with each other via electric signals using long connecting cables called an axon and small branches called dendrites.
An electric signal passes through the space between these axon-dendrite connections called synapses. During this process, small molecules are released called neurotransmitters and a temporary shift occurs in electric signals. These are called action potentials. This causes an electric field to generate within the brain.
Ultimately, Neuralink electrode "threads" then detect this electric field and pass on the message to the implanted chip.
Neuralink is not the first brain implant. Neural implants have been in use for clinical purposes for the past few years in DBS (deep brain stimulation). For example, Medtronic's DBS (Deep Brain Stimulation) system is primarily used to treat patients with Parkinson's disease.
Once the chip is implanted, these electrodes detect the electrical impulses that flow through our nerve cells. It then interacts with the brain and with the help of Bluetooth technology, it can also record all the brain activity, which can help to analyze disorders.
Design – Inspired by a coin!
The latest Neuralink has a very simplified design language, as compared to its first version one year ago, as well as compared to its competitors and other traditional designs.
It comes in the size of a coin with 23 x 8mm. dimensions and has 1024 electrode threads.These "threads" serve as connectors to send and receive signals, which will be implanted into the brain.
Neuralink is invisible from the outside as it sits on the top of your skull without any protruding attachments. It can be charged inductively using wireless technology, just as a phone or smartwatch.
Process – How to install it in the brain?
Neuralink cannot be installed by the users on their own. It requires a sophisticated surgical procedure that is beyond human capabilities. That is why the company itself has developed an A.I.-powered robot surgical procedure to carry out the operation.
A 2 cm. wide hole is drilled into the skull and the device is inserted, along with electrodes. The robot will check for any veins or arteries and avoid the same while inserting Neuralink. This procedure will follow all the guidelines from health authorities and can be completed in less than an hour.
During the procedure, the patient will be under partial anesthesia, and once complete, same-day discharge from the hospital will be possible.
Uses / Pros of Neuralink
Neuralink has a wide area of application and scope, especially in the health sector:
1. Cure people of severe brain diseases like dementia, Alzheimer’s disease.
2. Cure spinal cord diseases and severe diseases like Parkinson’s disease.
3. Help people with poor eyesight or people with damaged optic nerve to see better.
4. Restore memory and other motor functions in paraplegics.
5. Help people overcome depression, anxiety by filtering their thoughts and emotions.
6. For entertainment purposes like streaming music directly using a hardware device at the back of the ear. Or use it for a hyper-realistic VR experience.
7. Other undiscovered possibilities like telepathy, superhuman abilities, interaction with machines as the technology matures and makes more use of A.I.
Concerns / Cons of Neuralink
While Neuralink does have many useful applications, there might be a few concerns. One of the main concerns is the ability to hack the device by hackers and criminals. Since it’s wireless and connects to the Internet, what if a malicious code finds its way on the device?
Though Bluetooth technology works for a few meters and the risk seems low, hackers are always one step ahead and may gain control of Neuralink (and ultimately, your brain).
So, the security and anti-hacking measures need to be top-notch. No compromises.
Another concern is the unknown effect of electrode materials on the brain. As these materials can decompose over time, will they have any impact on the brain itself?
Availability of Neuralink – When can I get one?
Neuralink is still not publicly available and human trials have not started yet. Till now, it has been tested on animals like pigs, mice, monkeys, sheep with continuous monitoring in place.
Recently, Musk tweeted that the company is in continuous talks with the FDA and other relevant authorities. The initial human trials may begin in late 2021.
The basic estimated cost for this project is around $10-20 million.
Conclusion – Is Neuralink the future of superhumans?
Neuralink is a phenomenal piece of technology that can help a large number of people suffering from brain diseases and neurological disorders.
It can solve many health-related challenges by helping depressed and anxious people, without the need for external sources like pills. It can help to regain the lost memory due to certain brain disorders like Alzheimer’s, dementia.
But on the other hand, implanting a brain chip that stays connected with the Internet brings its own set of challenges. The security on these devices needs to be at its highest level and well-tested to avoid falling into the wrong hands of hackers and cybercriminals.
In the future, Neuralink will use A.I. to help humans communicate with machines. In this entire process of making humans smarter, adding superhuman abilities by making their brains smarter, the basic human values should never deteriorate.
If it happens, we won’t know where it all started and it will be too difficult to contain such an advanced technology!