Minding the Brain

Elon Musk has launched tech startup called Neuralink to build electromagnetic implants which interact with neurons that detect and record the electrical signals in the brain, and transmits this information outside the body to digital platforms. Neuralink’s main use case are for patients who could regain control of specific brain areas that affect physical maladies.

Neuralink has created custom microfabrication to create an electrode group encased inside a small device that contains custom wireless chips, measuring four by four millimeters. Each group of threads could contain as many as 3,072 electrodes, which would be distributed across 96 threads which are implanted near specific neurons within the brain.

The brain’s neurons connect to form a large network through synapses. At these connection points, neurons communicate with each other using chemical signals called neurotransmitters, which are released in response to an electrical spike called action potential which are decoded and processed through Neuralink algorithms. Of the many challenges facing Neuralink is the amount of data that would need to be transmitted by the device in nanoseconds. “It’s mostly about the bandwidth, the speed of the connection between your brain and the digital version of yourself, particularly output.”

Neuralink is a dual use technology. Musk and Neuralink management state that its main purpose is to help with brain disorders. They state that there has been over 100 years of experiments with physical connections to the brain. in 1957, the Cochlear implant helped deaf people to have a sense of sound to regain hearing. Recently, chip implants are addressing tactical kinesthetic problems.

Yet Musk, in a 90 minute presentation stated at one point that the technology will also “secure humanity future as a civilization in relation to AI.” Musk stated that the limbic system associated with emotions and the cerebral cortex associated with thinking can be augmented. He further elaborates on this by saying “Over time I think we will probably see a closer merger of biological intelligence and digital intelligence . . .” Neuralink could enhance a brain’s ability to scale up and down skills and experiences by achieving a symbiosis with artificial intelligence (AI).

In other blog posts on automation and artificial intelligence, I have written about how mechanization which was to support human labor has transformed to IoT physical systems where the human is more and more supporting digital systems. Automation has come to the forefront of discussions around increasing worker displacement in unskilled and semiskilled jobs. With advancements and sophistication, highly technical and intellectual professions could also feel the effects of smart systems taking over more and more of white collar activities.

However, Neuralink takes it to another level where a digital implant could through physical connections to the brain through neurons and synaptic structures begin to meld physical, neuro-chemical and digital together where it would become hard to differentiate the parts from the whole. At the most basic level, the brain is the physical substance, and the mind is the conscious product of firing neurons that create thoughts, feelings, attitudes, beliefs, and memories which are stored in different parts of the brain. Placing man-made systems that filter, monitor and interpret brain activity can also act as a way to transmit electromagnetic signals to groups of neurons and networks that link to specific parts of the brain to place information, knowledge and experiences.

Max Hodak, president of Neuralink stated that this effort is being propelled by Elon’s vision. “Elon has incredible optimism to pierce through imagined constraints.” Musk has proven his audacity to break with the status quo of many industries through SpaceX, the Hyperloop, the Boring Company and Tesla. His engineering prowess and ability to bootstrap endeavors by controlling all aspects of an industry’s production and distribution capabilities proves that most of our assumptions are imagined constraints.

Neuralink is bridging pure and applied research and is consolidating knowledge from many fields such as neuroscience, biology, robotics, computer science, and biochemistry. Many employees are very young, smart and driven to succeed on audacious endeavors. I will be watching the progress of Neuralink’s progress and hope that it does not resemble a Black Mirror episode.

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2 thoughts on “Minding the Brain

  1. Personally, I do not care much for Neuralink like augmentation. I might be patronizing here; I do care for younger generations, and those that follow them. My hunch is they will actively explore such tech as it ‘matures.’ Human brain is not static in this scheme. Given neural plasticity is a valid premise even among people in their sixties, then how would brain adapt to Neuralink. Will it be a bit like a Schrodinger’s cat experiment, I wonder. More confounding to me from such ‘audacity’ is impact on a person as a whole. My specific concern is as to how such tech will affect individual identity. What will a Neuralink customers sense of self be? Again, not to sound like a Luddite, if augmentation will benefit those with deteriorating brain function, to provide some sort of scaffolding to basic brain functions that normal folks take for granted, then God speed! Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comment to my recent post. You are correct society changes, our values change, and what it is to be human is a constantly moving goal post. Things that were considered unacceptable are now considered acceptable. Neural implants have very little precedent and this is why I labeled Neuralink’s technology dual-use. Its main purpose is to help people with brain injuries or brain diseases compensate for them. Musk also has made comments that the company is also a recognition that the brain and AI will be intertwined. As to how it will affect a person’s “identity” that is the main question and I am not sure as there are so many variables that could affect the answer.

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