Elon Musk’s startup on Neuralink

By Ojal Jain

Would you allow someone to drill a hole in your skull to implant a product like the Neuralink, assuming it was safe and worked as advertised? How much benefit would you need from a device like this to justify the intrusion into your nervous system? We won’t know for sure until we have to make the decision, but it’s a good idea to start thinking about it now because that day is approaching soon.

Elon Musk founded Neuralink, a neurotech startup that is developing some pretty intriguing technology to help humanity. Musk claims that the company’s chips will “enable someone with paralysis to use a smartphone with their mind faster than someone using their thumbs.”

The Silicon Valley firm, which has already implanted artificial intelligence microchips in the brains of a macaque monkey named Pager and a pig named Gertrude, is now looking for a “clinical trial director” to oversee human trials. Using more than 2,000 electrodes implanted in sections of the monkey’s motor cortex that control hand and arm movements, Neuralink records and decodes electrical signals from the brain.

The five-year-old company’s first goal is to let people with disabilities such as paralysis, control their computers and mobile devices through brain activity. Musk, on the other hand, has hinted at considerably greater plans in the future. He earlier described his goal of assisting humans in achieving “symbiosis” with artificial intelligence in order to prevent being “left behind” by technology.

Neuralink is working on a device that, once implanted in the human brain, will allow the brain to convert a person’s ideas into action through a computer, allowing them to do anything like typing, hitting buttons, or controlling a mouse or joystick by simply thinking about the desired result. It would also allow information to be beamed back into the brain from a computer. Musk has stated that such brain computer connections, or BCIS, will be required in the future, and that the only way to stay up with the rapidly growing artificial intelligence will be to merge with the machines, cyborg-style.

The announcement of Musk’s proposal to implant a chip into the human brain has sparked worldwide interest. However, this does not sit well with everyone. Several scientists and academics expressed cautious optimism that Neuralink will properly offer a breakthrough medicine for patients, albeit each also raised serious ethical concerns that Musk and his team have yet to address thoroughly.  Neuralink does not have FDA approval for human testing yet.

 A malware attack on your computer or the compromising of one of your online accounts can be disastrous. But it would be far worse if your brain implant was hacked—not just from a privacy standpoint, but from the standpoint of having a malicious actor in your brain. Assuming that BCIs will someday transmit information into our brains rather than simply reading neural activity, true brain hacking becomes a possibility.

If you think the pressure to buy a new iPhone every two or three years is bad, consider having a brain implant that’s so outdated that you’ll need another surgery to replace it. While we are confident that BCI designers will strive to make their systems as future-proof as possible, the speed with which technology advances makes it unavoidable.

Scientists are concerned that there is an uneasy marriage between a for-profit firm and medical procedures that are intended to help people. The market is small, and the gadgets are expensive, so they are very niche products—if we’re only talking about producing them for paraplegic people.  The end goal is to use the collected brain data in other devices or to use these gadgets for other purposes—say, driving automobiles or Teslas—then there could be a much larger market. Then all those human study subjects—people with genuine needs—are exploited and employed in dangerous research for the benefit of someone else’s business.

If something goes wrong, surgeons just do not have the technology to safely explant and remove them without causing brain damage.

Additional unsolved questions were listed by the scientists: 

What if Neuralink goes bankrupt after patients have already had devices implanted in their brains? Who has control over the data about users’ brain activity? What happens to that information if the business is sold, especially to a foreign company? What is the expected lifespan of the implantable devices, and will Neuralink support upgrades for study participants regardless of whether the trials are successful?

If Neuralink claims that their gadget will be used therapeutically to help disabled people, they’re exaggerating because they’re still a long way from being able to do so.

These aren’t just science-fiction issues any longer. Neuralink is one of a slew of businesses vying for a piece of the brain-technology pie, with rivals like Synchron and Neurable making significant progress as well.

Synchron Inc., based in New York, announced that the Food and Drug Administration has given them the authorisation to test their technology on humans. The experiment, known as an early feasibility study, is critical in demonstrating that the implants are safe and could be commercialised in the United States in the future.

Neurable is a firm that creates “full-stack neurotechnology tools that understand human intent, assess emotion, and allow telekinetic control of the digital world,” according to its website. In 2017, the business made headlines when it developed the first brain-controlled virtual reality (VR) game. Players sat in front of a computer wearing an EEG headset and were asked to control a remote-controlled automobile with their minds.

Black Mirror, the dystopian television show, has started to feel less like fiction and more like reality. Because our brain is our last stronghold of liberty and privacy, such devices present a plethora of ethical questions.