Proving that his brain can still generate grand ideas, the man responsible for Tesla, SpaceX, and the Boring Company took to a San Francisco stage on Tuesday evening to shed some light on Neuralink, an outfit launched by Elon Musk in 2016 aimed at developing “ultra high bandwidth brain-machine interfaces to connect humans and computers.”
The billionaire entrepreneur had, until today, revealed little about Neuralink, but at the special event he said its main goals were to understand and treat brain disorders, and also to “preserve and enhance your own brain” to keep pace with artificial intelligence (A.I.).
Musk said Neuralink is already developing a system for people suffering paralysis that will allow actions to be performed just by thinking about them. It means, for example, that those unable to move their limbs would be able to control devices such as smartphones and computers simply with thoughts.
Musk said Neuralink is seeking approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to start human trials as early as 2020.
Notably, its technology uses a highly intricate, custom-built robot capable of performing procedures — under the direction of a neurosurgeon — with far more precision and much less risk than existing methods, with operations able to take place under local anesthetic.
During an operation, implants for transferring thoughts to control devices would be inserted by the robot into the brain via an 8mm hole laser-drilled into the patient’s skull. Part of the procedure also involves inserting numerous information-transmitting “threads” connected to the implant. The super-thin threads are an advancement on current electrodes as they’re flexible, thinner, less likely to damage brain tissue, and can transmit much more information.
The implants connect with a wearable computing device called The Link that’s placed behind the patient’s ear. This makes it easy to apply software or firmware updates, the team said.
Max Hodak, president of Neuralink, acknowledged that researchers around the world have for many years been developing similar systems that interact with the brain — to ease conditions such as Parkinson’s disease — but said his team’s technology is a big step forward in terms of sophistication and safety.
Let’s merge with A.I.!
Musk admitted that while he believes the immediate aim of tackling brain conditions should be achievable relatively soon, Neuralink’s grander goals may take a while.
“Getting FDA approval for a device of any kind if quite difficult,” he told the audience. “This will be a slow process where we gradually increase the issues that we solve, until ultimately we can do a full brain-machine interface, meaning that we can ultimately — this is going to sound pretty weird — achieve a sort of symbiosis with A.I.”
Yes, Musk envisions a day when we’ll be able to merge with A.I., though, he noted with a smile, “It won’t be mandatory, you can choose.”
Musk said that looking at the project as a whole, Neuralink initially wants to solve a bunch of brain-related diseases and conditions before “mitigating the existential threat of A.I.,” adding, “This is the point of it.”
Before now, Musk has spoken on a number of occasions about what he believes are the dangers of A.I., saying it could even pose a threat to humanity if we fail to develop it responsibly and with care. One of his concerns is that A.I. could become so intelligent that we end up becoming like a “house cat” to the powerful technology. Therefore, creating a brain-machine interface would allow us to develop with the technology, allowing humans to maintain control.
It may all sound a bit bonkers to some observers, but don’t forget, steam trains, space travel, and flushing toilets would’ve also sounded a bit off-the-wall to folks who lived before those things existed. So, with Neuralink at least, let’s stand by and monitor developments.