Your brain, with a USB-C port in it. That’s Elon Musk’s vision for Brain Machine Interfaces (BMI). In a controversial July 2019 white paper he claimed that his company Neuralink had taken a huge step towards building a “scalable high-bandwidth BMI system” that would let the human brain “stream full broadband electrophysiology data” to a network, using a combination of ultra-fine polymer probes, a neurosurgical robot that sews them into the brain, and custom high-density electronics.
A “single USB-C cable provides full-bandwidth data streaming from the device” the paper noted: the device having been stitched, in theory, to your cerebral cortex. Neuroscientists were varying shades of intrigued, appalled and dismissive: the custom hardware would only pick up noise, they suggested: interpretation of brain waves simply wasn’t that advanced; the ethical issues were pronounced; the body would reject this level of intervention; where was the peer review of the paper?
A year later, Musk has promised a Neuralink update.
This was cryptically announced by Musk in July 2020, with the Tweets: “If you can’t beat em, join em Neuralink mission statement” and “Progress update August 28”. Ten days ahead of the reveal, we decided to take stock of Neuralink’s work’s and the ongoing discussion around the potential of BMI; speaking to a range of specialists in the sector about where the work was going and how realistic Musk’s vision was.
Neuralink began as a way to advance the technology of BMI: described by one organisation, the Mayo Clinic, as a technology that “acquires brain signals, analyses them and translates them into commands that are relayed to output devices that carry out desired actions”. (Many observers suspect that the pending update will have to do with the “analyse them” part of that statement, and Musk’s “if you can’t beat ’em” statement refer to his well-documented concerns about the power of AI.)
These “desired actions” could be how to move a wheelchair without the use of your arms or how to control bionic limbs: “It is plausible to imagine that a patient with spinal cord injury could dexterously control a digital mouse and keyboard” wrote Musk in the 2019 paper. “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”.
While this might be the starting point for Neuralink, the ambitions of those working closely on BMI include, for some, the hope that technology could eventually to be used to connect the human race via a bona fide “neural network”; allowing people to communicate using thoughts and images rather than words, and even give over their motor function to others, with their consent*. The ideas behind this have their roots in a dizzying transhumanism. Meanwhile, very physical issues have remained a hurdle…