Neuralink Corporation is a medical research company, based on San Francisco, founded by Elon Musk and others, developing implantable brain–machine interfaces (BMIs) or brain-computer interfaces (BCIs). Let us cut the ball here, Neuralink wants to make you into a cyborg; no a super hero kind but a super smart one. The company was found on 2016 in response to fast growing AI industries and was first publicly reported in March 2017.
Let’s jump on to the main topic here. What is a BMI? How does it works? The good and the bad side? I will try to answer everything I understood about Neuralink’s BMI.
Neurons; our brain consists of nearly one hundreds billion dells called neurons. These comes in many complex shapes. Generally it consists of dendritic arbor, cell body called Selma and an axon. Neurons is an electrically excitable cell that communicates with other cells via specialized connections called synapses. At the connection point neurons communicates using chemical signals called neurotransmitters. These chemicals are released from an axon in response to an electrical spike called action potential. When a cell receives enough of a right kind of neurotransmitters input chain reaction is triggered that cause an action potential to fire and the neuron relay messages to its own downstream synapses.During this process, it produce an electric field that spread through a neuron which can be detected by placing electrodes near it. This process is not new to human kind.
Scientist nowadays have already mapped many parts of our brain. So if we can connect parts of our brain to a computer, we might be able to unleash infinite possibilities. We can already control robotic arms directly by our brains. The sensor is a tiny array of electrodes connected to bundle of gold wires which is attached to patient’s motor cortex; the part of the brain that commands body movements. The brain activity recorded is then relayed to a computer where the signal is amplified and processed. Then it instruct the assistive technologies like bionic arm to carry out the required function. This type of system are being used from 20th century. But what makes the Neuralink’s BMI different than previously used ones? As a matter of fact, our phones and PCs is a one of a kind, very low bandwidth BMI.
How does it works?
Instead of using 10 to 20 electrodes, Neuralink may use up to thousands of electrodes implants on the brain which results in high bandwidth BMI system. The goal of Neuralink is to understand and treat different forms of brain or spine injuries and disordered. And also to achieve symbiosis with AI. On top of that, not only the system analyses the signal it also learn simultaneously, making the BMI quicker in usual activities.
Each thread is smaller than one tenth of the size of a human hair and contains 192 electrodes. This electrodes are surgically connected to one’s brain and connected to a device which is behind ears. The device is upgradable whereas the electrodes are permanent. As Neuralink President Mr. Hodak said “As safe and painless as laser eye surgery”. Neuralink has also created a neurosurgery robot capable of implanting the threads.
As many as 10 implants could be inserted into one hemisphere of the brain. Connecting the implants are a very small wires tunnel under the scalp to a conductive coil behind the ear. This coil connects wirelessly through the skin to a wearable device that the company calls the Link, which contains a Bluetooth radio and a battery. A single USB-C cable provides full-bandwidth data streaming from the device to a phone or computer, simultaneously recording all chip channels. Controlling the computer is via a smartphone app, using the Link can help to make software updates and fix bugs via Bluetooth, avoiding the need to tamper with the chip. Closing the Link shutdown the implant.
The Good and The Bad
As said above, we may be able to communicate with machines more efficiently. We can finally come to symbiosis with AI. While significant technological challenges must be addressed before a high-bandwidth device is suitable for clinical application, with such a device, it is plausible to imagine that a patient with spinal cord injury could dexterously control a digital mouse and keyboard. When combined with rapidly improving spinal stimulation techniques, in the future this approach could conceivably restore motor function. High-bandwidth neural interfaces should enable a variety of novel therapeutic possibilities.
Discussing of the negative aspect, will the implants be durable? Who owns the brain data? Is your brain safe? The learning curve of the system? How does the device interpret irrelevant thoughts? These question are necessary to answer but hey there is a lot of time for Neuralink to be commercially available, maybe a decade or even more.