Elon Musk’s Neuralink reveals work on brain-machine interfaces

Neuralink, a company founded by Elon Musk in 2017, has revealed some of its work on brain-machine interfaces (BMI), at a live event on 16 July 2019. The company has presented a ‘scalable high-bandwidth BMI system’ composed of several elements: (a) arrays of very thin and flexible electrode ‘threads’; (b) a neurosurgical robot that can insert six threads per minute into the brain; (c) an implantable device (chip-powered) in which the electrode array is packaged; (d) a USB-C cable that provides full-bandwidth data streaming from the device. In practice, the robot inserts the electrode threads into the brain ‘with micron precision’, avoiding blood vessels and targeting specific brain regions. The very small chip (4mm x 4mm) is also implanted into the brain, where it connects to the threads carrying electrodes to the relevant areas, where they can record the electrical activity of neurons. The chip then processes neural signals and identifies the ‘spikes’ of information; the spikes are registered in a compact format that the wireless hardware can transmit to the controller (situated outside the skull). The electrodes can also be used to send electrical impulses to the neurons, stimulating brain activity. This entire system is seen by many as an evolution in the field of BMI, for example, due to the small size of the brain implant, as well as the neurosurgical robot’s potential to make the implantation of electrodes into the brain safer. But questions have also been raised about the functionality of the system, so, as Arstechnica notes, it remains to be seen what is ready for use and what is aspirational in Neuralink’s work. What the company hopes it to reach a level in which patients with brain implants can simply go home, live a normal life, and be able, for example, to easily control an artificial limb directly from the brain. It even outlines the possibility of multiple chips being implanted into the brain and working at the same time. We might be many years and many trials away from this vision, but it will be interesting to follow Neuralink’s work. Especially given that, in the long term, Musk’s ambition is for Neuralink to achieve a symbiosis between the human brain and artificial intelligence.