In early February, an old victim of a car accident that got paralyzed from shoulders volunteered himself for clinical experimentation of Elon Musk's Neuralink project on Twitter. The founder of Neuralink directly replied saying that human trials may initiate by the end of this year. "Neuralink is working super hard to ensure implant safety and is in close communication with the FDA. If things go well, we might be able to do initial human trials later this year", said Mr. Musk.
The creative concept of Neuralink may seem impossible to some people but it is very daring to speak against the dynamo billionaire who led SpaceX from the verge of destruction to utilizing its reusable rockets to dispatch NASA's astronauts, as Max Hodak, President of Neuralink once said,
If you tell Musk something is not possible, it better be limited by a law of physics or you are going to end up looking stupid.
What is Neuralink?
Neuralink is a brain-machine interface technology which connects our brain to some outside computer by means of a chip. By using electrodes it can convert the electrochemical neural signal from brains into some sort of commands which are accessible by some outside source such as computers, smartphones, or maybe robots. To be more precise it acts as a type of symbiosis between the human brain and artificial intelligence to be used in the most productive way.
Human brain has two parts the limbic system concerned with our emotional and behavioral reactions and the cortex system involved in more complex activities like memory, thinking, learning, etc. This part also controls the voluntary activities of speaking, listening, writing, etc. What Neuralink actually does is to provide the third part in the form of a brain-machine interface that can be used for various purposes. Such a BMI machine will act as a device similar to smartphones but you could use it either by the external or internal stimulus.
What are the aims behind this project?
The short term plans behind this innovative initiative comprises of using such chips to help paralyzed persons to control devices such as phones, computers, etc. via text and to treat some major neurological disorders such as Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, etc.
But the things get really complex when we take a look at the ambitious long term goals of Elon Musk - a beautiful blend of the human brain with artificial intelligence for a systematic approach towards more technological lifestyle. This would take place by insertion of small-sized chips known as "Link" into the human brain allowing it to connect wirelessly to computerized devices and providing with an ability to control those devices just by thinking. This will lead the way to telepathic communication and accessibility of any memory at any time. This really sounds fun but is way more complicated than we can think.
How does the chip works?
Our brains have millions of neurons. Each neuron comprises of cell body, dendrites, and axons. Neurons communicate with each other by means of chemical signals known as neurotransmitters. These signals are released by the end of axons at the junction of dendrites and axons called synapses. Neurotransmitters releases due to electric spike created whenever we perform some sort of cognitive activity like thinking, hearing, etc. This action potential also forms an electric field around neurons and by using electrodes placed at a specific distance we can detect the neural message and even record it or the electrode itself can be used to produce an electric field around neurons which will acts as a stimulus. The precise distance should be 60 microns to be able to determine an electric spike.
Neuralink aims to record as many neurons as possible and the chip called "N1" would be the first product of such capability. It would be inserted using threads through a 2mm slit. It will be connected to a wearable chip behind the ear called "link". N1 chip will be each 4mm*4mm and will have the ability to record and write up to 1000 electrodes.
The "Link" consists of battery and can be connected to smartphones by means of Bluetooth. The N1 chips can be used as stimulus as well as recorder. Spike will be activated by writing algorithmic operations which will trigger the neurons for responses. Similarly, the chips can also record the spike by means of reading algorithmic operations which will provide us a message of neurons that can be decoded.
"There's a problem with getting electrical signals out of the brain, and that is that they're very small. And the farther they have to travel down a thin wire the more they're going to get distorted by noise because there's always some electrical noise going on in the world around us. You want to be able to amplify and digitize the signal as close to the source as possible," Neuroscientist Andrew Hires said
From what they disclosed in their whitepaper, that chip looks beyond the state of the art ... That's going to enable you to record from more places with higher precision," he said. "It's sort of like upgrading your TV to go from standard definition to high definition.
Things will get far more exciting when these algorithmic activities of reading and writing will get more advanced thus, enabling us to get our cognitive actions such as thinking, perception, hearing, speaking on app stores within the brain (if more electrodes will be used per unit area).
Recently a pretty big step was taken in this regard, the insertion of chips in Gertrude - a pig. Elon Musk performed this experiment and these chips were implanted 2 months prior to that experiment. A demonstrative video was released by Musk in which the pig is seen eating some snacks. A screen displays some blue lines showing alleviations and depressions unevenly. Basically, as the person touches the snout the screen shows bigger peaks followed by some bleeps because the snout is a sensitive area, and touching it causes the electric spike to fire neurotransmitters which are seen on the screen as peaks and troughs.
The experiment proves to be a major step towards the aspiring goals of the company. Brain signals are being recorded to a computerized device by using small chips and the pig moves freely interacting with its environment. "It's kind of like a Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires", said Musk. "It actually fits quite nicely in your skull, It could be under your hair and you wouldn't know".
The challenging task of merging human brains with artificial intelligence is fraught with difficulties and large amount of determination is needed to endeavor the obstacles and make it possible.