By Celia Hameury
From the Borg in Star Trek to Robocop, brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) have long been featured in science fiction. However, with technology rapidly changing and improving, BMIs may soon be a reality. At least, if everything goes according to plan for Elon Musk’s latest company, Neuralink.
Founded in 2017 by billionaire SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, Neuralink is a small biotech firm which aims to develop a small chip that could interface with the human brain. The device is about the size of a coin, with over 3000 electrodes. These electrodes, which are attached to thin flexible threads, can monitor the activity of over 1000 brain neurons. Such information can then be analyzed and potentially used to gain a deeper understanding of the brain. Musk describes the device as a kind of “Fitbit for your brain”, because once completed it will be able to read brain activity and assess the overall health of the individual in which it is implanted. So far, an initial version of the device has been built and implanted in living pigs.
On August 28th 2020, Musk held a public live demo, during which he explained the goals of Neuralink and presented Gertrude, a pig with one of the Neuralink chips implanted in her brain. Musk illustrated how the pig’s behavior and health were unaffected by the presence of the chip in her brain, and further presented the readings of the chip, which tracked her neural activity.
Despite the fact that human clinical trials have yet to begin, Musk has high hopes for Neuralink. He claims that his MBI technology could eventually be used to cure spine injuries and other neurological diseases, such as dementia or Parkinson’s disease. The human brain is still very poorly understood, but Neueralink’s computer-brain interface chip could offer new and useful insights into how it functions. Musk believes that his technology could also be used to allow people with limited physical capabilities to control computers, cell phones or prosthetics with their minds. However, his long-term ambition is even more fantastical. Musk hopes to use computer-brain interface chips to grant humans “superhuman cognitive abilities”, such as enhanced vision or even telepathic communication. While all of this is so far in the future it borders on science fiction, there is no denying that Neuralink’s new technology may be a step towards the fusion of man and machine that so many sci-fi writers have predicted.