Elon Musk’s Neuralink: Aspirational future or overhyped reality?

If nothing else, Elon Musk has been an enigmatic figure in the realm of technology for the past two decades. He is among the richest billionaires in the world and is the founder of companies like Tesla, SpaceX, The Boring Company and more recently, X, formerly known as Twitter. However, one of his less talked about companies is Neuralink. Musk along with a team of seven other scientists founded the company in 2016 to develop a brain-computer interface (BCI). The company is trying to create a neural chip that can be surgically implanted in the brain which can then decode and simulate brain activity. According to Musk, the implant, also called the Link, will be able to connect human brains directly with computers wirelessly.

How does Neuralink work?

The Link is a coin-sized chip that is surgically embedded under the skull of an individual where it receives information from 1,024 neural threads which fan out into different sections of the subject’s brain which are in control of their motor functions. Each of these threads contain sensors that record and emit electrical currents. These threads are so fine and flexible that they cannot be inserted by the huma hands, therefore, they need to be installed through the use of a neurosurgical robot. Neuralink is trying to make this process entirely automated.

Apart from the hardware element, there is also the software element that needs to be understood. The company is also developing an app that allows the subject implanted with the Link to manipulate a keyboard and a mic with just their mind.

According to Sumner Norman, a scientist at nonprofit startup Convergent Research and former chief brain-computer interface scientist at software firm AE Studio, Neuralink operates in a way similar to that of electrophysiology. The electrochemical signals in our brains are sparked as the neurons of the brain communicate with each other across gaps between the nerve cells known as synapses. It is this electrochemical signal that is captured by the sensors in the threads of the Link as voltages. Measuring the change in these voltages, or spikes, allows the device to understand the “thoughts” of the subject.

These spikes are created not just when one takes an action but also when one thinks about doing an action. Therefore, this system allows the Link to record such spikes. Therefore, what Neuralink does is not “mind reading”, but rather the collection of enormous amounts of data and interpreting their intended action.

How Can Neuralink Help?

Elon Musk has listed a whole host of applications of this technology, which even pushes the boundaries of credulity for some optimistic analysts in the field. The eventual goal of the technology according to Musk is to allow humans to coexist with Artificial Intelligence technology. According to the eccentric billionaire, AI is growing at such a pace that super-intelligent AI is likely just round the corner and for humans to be able to exist in such world, humans would have to live in “symbiosis with artificial intelligence”. According to him, Neuralink was “intended to address the existential risk associated with digital superintelligence.”

“We will not be able to be smarter than a digital supercomputer, so, therefore, if you cannot beat ’em, join ’em”, Musk noted. Musk has also surmised that in the future people would be able to “save” and “replay” their memories similar to technology shown is episodes of “Black Mirror”. There is avid scepticism about these claims made by Musk. However, even according to him, these capabilities are firmly in the distant future. However, the less fantastical and more “realistic” claims about what it could do are no less fascinating if true.

According to the company, a fully functional Link would be able to interface with prosthetics and exoskeletons which would enable people with paralysis or amputations to regain a certain level of mobility and independence. For people who are unable to speak or write or communicate in some way, Neuralink aims to enable them to use a virtual mouse and keyboard or even communicate through thoughts. The Link could also be used to monitor brain activity and detect changes that may indicate neurological conditions such as epilepsy, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease. It could also be used to manage neurological conditions as electrical stimulation could be delivered to targeted areas in the brain as a treatment for burnout, fatigue, anxiety and depression.

Criticisms of Neuralink

Right at the outset, implanting a chip that allows users to interact with computers just with their thoughts, plants the whole concept firmly in the realm of science fiction. To top that off, the claims made by Musk like the fact that the Link will allow paraplegic patients to regain some motor functions and even allow those born blind to have some form of vision, further push the idea to fantastical realms that becomes hard to believe yet so tantalising to dream of.

However, as reported by Business Insider, the technologies used in Neuralink might not be so detached from reality while the use cases and the effectiveness of the implants might be in question. According to Prof. Andrew Jackson of the University of Newcastle, the technologies used for the Neuralink project are, in fact not even new. Several studies from across the world have developed and studied technologies that have been simply “copy-pasted” in the Link. Moreover, he also asserts that the Link uses 1024 individual channels for the transmission and recording of information from the brain, which according to him is not that impressive. However, he does concede that where Neuralink shines in its ability to package the various technologies into a neat packet and allow wireless communication with the Link. He also notes that the robotic implantation method developed for it is also a significant technological achievement. According to him, the engineering behind the device is much more impressive while the underlying neuroscience is “much more shaky.”

The current state and future of Neuralink?

One aspect that most analysts tend to agree on is that academia has made tremendous strides in the past two decades that have propelled the development of these technologies that are now being integrated in the Neuralink device, however, for further and faster development, more private players have to invest in the segment. The scale of funding and the pace of development is unlikely to be possible at academic institutions.

With regards to Neuralink, implants have already been tested on rats, mice, monkeys, sheep and pigs so far and the testing is now moving on to human trials. On January 28, 2024, the first human Neuralink implant was placed on a patient and according to the company’s website, the first clinical trial is “open for recruitment.” But eve in this there are several prominent voices that are apprehensive at the pace of development. One of the more common criticisms is the lack of long term testing of the after affects of the implant. Traditionally, for implants such as these which will have to stay in the body of a patient for decades, safety testing needs to be performed in an animal test subject (normally a primate) and leaving it there for an extended amount of time to test its longevity. They need to be able to ascertain if the electrodes will survive in the body for such long periods of time, which is unlikely to be known in such a short period of time. Further, it also does not allow for testing of log term implications or side effects that it might have on the subject.

Now, whether the Neuralink implant, or the Link, proves to be as hyped up in performance as Musk claims or is a complete dud, is yet to be seen. The most apt guess would be to imagine that it would fall somewhere in the middle. While there are criticisms for the neurological aspects of the project, the engineering aspects of the project are also being praised. Where it will end up, however, is not the crux of the discussion to be had now. Now is the time to discuss the ethics, the moral issues and the possible legislative changes that might be needed to safeguard against the best- and worst-case scenarios emanating from this technology. As to the fact that, either way this technology is going to change lives is not even debatable at this point.

Dibbyyan Nath

Dibbyyan Nath

Dibbyyan is a tech-enthusiast, strategist and a writer who has mentored professionals, entrepreneurs for self and career growth while his owned organization Inteliqo Research and Services have fulfilled different technical projects of renowned global brands.After obtaining degrees and certifications from various national and international reputed institutes such as IIT Delhi, Indian Council of Technical Research and Development, UC San Diego and many more, he has realized that knowledge is incomparable and can definitely make a positive impact on society. His passion towards writing influenced him to engage into different ventures being driven by writing and research which includes the foundation of The Readers Time

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