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How Elon Musk's Neuralink Plans to Unify the Brain with AI

Is Neuralink’s goal of AI and brain symbiosis humanity’s next chapter?

Source: Brunomathiaslima/Pixabay

Elon Musk is arguably not only one of the world’s greatest omnidisciplinary visionaries, but he is also an extraordinary doer who has moved the needle of what is humanly possible in the 21st century. Musk sets the bar high as the founder of SpaceX, and The Boring Company, and as the cofounder of OpenAI, PayPal, Neuralink and Tesla. Yesterday, Musk unveiled his aspirations for Neuralink Corporation, a neuroscience company seeking to connect artificial intelligence with the human brain.

But why now? The answer is decidedly within the human realm. “The main reason for this presentation is recruiting,” said Musk at the beginning of the presentation that was broadcasted live on July 16, 2019.

To construct a brain-computer interface (BCI), also called a brain-machine interface (BMI), requires uniquely-qualified, hard-to-find domain experts spanning across multiple disciplines such as artificial intelligence (AI), neuroscience, biophysics, robotics, neuroanatomy, medicine, molecular biochemistry, machine learning, electrical engineering, physics, computer vision, microscopy, mathematics, software engineering, data science and more fields to name a few—it is an area where artificial intelligence melds with biology.

Where do you find such a wide array of domain expertise? Trailblazing researchers who are on the cutting-edge of their field are often well-ensconced in their own labs at top-tier universities and research institutions with existing funding. The practice of commercial industry collaborating in partnership with such research teams is an acceptable, normal practice. However, luring their talent away is frowned upon. Hence, Musk lifted the curtain and shared his vision for Neuralink. Is the vision compelling enough to attract the world’s best minds to join his mission to unify AI with human intelligence?

“Our goal is to record from and selectively stimulate spikes in neurons, and to do so in a way that is orders of magnitude more than anything that has been done to date,” stated Musk in his presentation.

Musk compared Neuralink’s first version, called N1, to what he refers to as the best FDA approved device for deep brain stimulation to treat Parkinson’s which has 10 electrodes. According to Musk, N1 is “capable of a thousand times more electrodes than the best system out there.”

His vision is to make the N1 installation process a simple procedure for the patient using only local anesthesia. “It’s sort of equivalent to just sort of a LASIK type of thing,” explained Musk. His goal is to enable the installation of N1 in a safe manner that does not require major surgery.

The installation would consist of making a miniscule opening in the skin and skull, followed by robotic placement of threads into the cortex. The opening is just two millimeters, which is dilated to eight millimeters so the chip can be inserted. Musk says that the opening can be “glued shut” and no stitches are required.

“The interface to the chip is wireless, so you have no wires poking out of your head—very, very important,” said Musk.

N1 has “very tiny threads that are about a tenth, roughly, of the cross-sectional area of a human hair,” said Musk. He estimates the threads to be close to the size actual biological neurons.

“You really need this to be done with the robot because it’s very tiny, and needs to be very precise,” said Musk. “You don’t want it to pierce a blood vessel.”

For each thread, a robot enabled with computer vision capabilities “looks” through a microscope and “inserts each electrode specifically”—thereby avoiding piercing any vasculature. The insertion needle is approximately 24 microns in diameter.

The sensor chip is then placed through the opening, which fills the hole in the skull in a manner that the scalp to can be closed up over it.

N1 has been tested in rodents and monkeys. For the first human trial, the plan is to initially install four sensors—three in motor areas, and one in a somatosensory area. These sensors will wirelessly connect through the skin to a wearable device, called “the link,” which contains a Bluetooth radio and a battery. The user will be able to control the system through an iPhone App—to eliminate the need to have a doctor or technology specialist to configure it.

“I think that BMI might be like really the first invention, in many ways, of like the next chapter of us,” said Max Hodak, President of Neuralink.

To say that Musk’s aspirations for Neuralink are high is not quite sufficient—it is more like stratospheric. Perhaps that is to be expected from the visionary leader who has delivered on many historic scientific firsts for humankind—ranging from commercially-produced reusable orbital-class rockets by SpaceX, to launching the first production sports car into orbit—thrust into space by the Falcon Heavy rocket in 2018. That sportscar, the Tesla Roadster, was also a record-holder—it was the world’s first production automobile to achieve a range of over 200 miles per charge and the first to be powered by lithium-ion battery cells. Musk has repeatedly demonstrated that the seemingly impossible, is achievable.

Musk envisions the first version of Neuralink to be trialed in humans by the end of 2020. And if Musk realizes his ultimate vision for Neuralink, the human brain will one day achieve “symbiosis with artificial intelligence” in the not-so-distant future ahead.

Copyright © 2019 Cami Rosso All rights reserved.


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