Updated: Jul 19
The Neuralink BCI (brain-computer interface) project is moving fast. In his last update in April 2021, Elon Musk released a video displaying the company's latest technology advancements.
As it is depicted in the video, Neuralink implanted two chips in a monkey's brain, which enabled the animal to play video games, only with its mind, not needing to use any joystick. The chips are implanted in the regions of his brain that control hands and arms movements. Neuralink uses a surgical robot to implant the chips, which connect to the brain through more than 2000 very thin electrodes, each of them about 1/20th of the width of a human hair.
BCIs are based on machine learning. In that case, the monkey was initially using a joystick to play the game and Neuralink registered and learned to recognize the electrical signals in the brain of the monkey, triggered by the arms and hand movements. The Neuralink team then unplugged the joystick but knew how to recognize the monkey's movement intentions in its brain and convert them as game moves. Eventually, the computer can predict where the monkey will move his hands not with a joystick but with a control of the cursor entirely through decoded neural activity. They could then remove the joystick. However, to keep the monkey's motivation to play high enough, winning points are rewarded with a banana smoothie available to the monkey through a pipe. Somewhere between Pavlov's dogs and reinforcement learning...
(Source: Neuralink – Graphical representation of a BMI decoding pipeline)
Beyond that experiment, the science behind this BCI could revolutionize healthcare. Indeed, Musk describes the future Neuralink brain-machine interface (BMI) as a “Fitbit in your skull” that could do anything from curing paralysis to practicing virtual telepathy. He said the company planned to launch human trials by the end of the year 2021.
As shown in this Tweet, Musk shared his vision that the first Neuralink human product would “enable a person with paralysis to use a smartphone with their mind faster than someone using thumbs”. Instead of using a joystick, a person with paralysis could train a computer simply by imagining an action. Brain signals could be picked up in real-time by their implant.
Not only does the Neuralink BCI project intend to monitor healthcare, but it also aims at increasing cognitive capacities, enhancing memory, and coping with Artificial Intelligence (AI). Thus, this technology could help humans compete with AI in the long term by augmenting our brains.
Nonetheless, the evolution of Neuralink BCI raises some major ethical issues.
First, there is this issue of merging humans and machines: do we really need to enhance human intelligence to be able to stay in control of AI? In other words, should we become partly AI ourselves to be able to control AI? Which would mean that non-augmented humans are no longer able to dominate the machines...
Second, there are some concerns regarding "mind hacking" and third parties that may try to implant thoughts inside your brain. For instance, hackers could get their way into a brain interface to induce some specific behaviors. In a dystopian scenario, governments might even try to control what people think, taking us one step closer to Georges Orwell's Big Brother in 1984.
Third, the usage of BCIs might lead us to complex liability issues and legal disputes about who is responsible for a person's actions, particularly in case of accident or criminal offense: is it that person or the supplier of the BCI in their brain?
If you want to know more regarding the Monkey MindPong, here is the link to Neuralink’s blog: https://neuralink.com/blog/
The following video explains the concept of Neuralink’s surgical robot further: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-gQn-evdsAo
In 2020, the company implanted an AI brain chip into a pig. The chip implants can read and write brain activity. Here is the link of a Futuria article focusing on this matter: https://www.futuria.io/post/elon-musk-wants-to-connect-your-brain