Aug 2019 Parentology
Earlier this month, billionaire innovator Elon Musk, announced that his high tech startup Neuralink would soon be able to implant a device in the human brain capable of communicating directly with artificial intelligence (AI). The device, which Musk claims would consist of wires thinner than human hair attached to a “tiny” chip, would communicate using technology similar to that used by Bluetooth enabled devices and wouldn’t be visible outside of the skull. Best of all, the implantation procedure would be similar to Lasik surgery, and only require a local anaesthetic. The ground-breaking announcement set much of the world abuzz in its wake, raising questions about seemingly limitless possibilities, and raising eyebrows over concerns.
Musk’s claims were immediately met with skepticism surrounding his proposed timeline. Human trials of the brain-computer interface (BCI) are projected to begin before the end of 2020. If this occurs, how far out of reach is this futuristic type of technology?
Parentology reached out to Keiland Cooper, a neuroscience researcher at the University of California, Irvine, who told us this type of technology may actually be a lot closer than we think. Especially considering we’ve been using some forms of BCI on humans for decades.
“In academic and medical research settings, successful human brain-computer implants can be traced back to the late 70s, where researchers successfully allowed a blind man to ‘see’ light by stimulating the part of his brain involved with vision,” he explains, detailing how there are also mobility BCIs currently being used. Cooper says there’s another form of BCI on the market: cochlear implants. Although the technology and capabilities vary greatly from the more rudimentary devices currently in use, or being trialed to what Neuralink proposes, Cooper says the future of devices likes these probably aren’t as far off as we’re inclined to think.
One of the many features of the tech Musk has proposed is the ability to help those with mobility issues regain complete control of their movements. “The most common form of BCI that’s successful, in my opinion, [are] those that control movement,” Cooper says. “Chips have been implanted in paralysed patients that have allowed them to control robotic arms to some degree.”
The potential for Neuralink’s technology to restore full mobility will be life-changing for those who use it. “5.4 million people are living with paralysis, according to the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation. If only a subset could be helped by these technologies, this would be a tremendous help.” Cooper says that BCIs — like cochlear implants, or those that allow the visually-impaired man to “see” light — were successful because researchers already understood how the brain works in those areas. “For example, the mapping between sound and neural firing in the ear is such that it’s close to a one-to-one mapping of which neuron is firing to represent the sound,” he says. “Moving up to the motor BCIs it gets more complex — if you move your hand, we can pinpoint where in the brain that movement is being processed.”
When it comes to more advanced ideas — like giving a user a “memory boost” as Musk claimed during his presentation — we may still be years away due to the more complex functions of the brain that aren’t as easy to decode. “For example, I primarily study how the brain learns and creates memories,” Cooper says. “If I wanted to create a BCI that could implant a memory, say a new movie that’s just come out, this wouldn’t be close to possible with today’s technology. We’re still learning how the brain can create these complex functions, and while some have tried even very rudimentary attempts in non-human species, the results are mixed at best.”
Dr. Joshua Rosenow, the Director of Functional Neurosurgery and Epilepsy Surgery and Professor of Neurosurgery, Neurology and Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Northwestern University says there are currently less than 100 people using some of the earlier forms of this technology, maybe even less than 50. And while the idea of developing technology like this is very exciting, especially among neurologists who are delighted their work is currently on the forefront of everyone’s minds, human trials and widespread roll-outs are still years away.
As the excitement surrounding the possibilities grows, so do questions about the safety of such a device. Aside from the implantation, which could cause a range of complications depending on incision size, location in the brain and method of attachment, there’s also the question of security. Rosen says users of the device would need to be aware of a range of risks which could include having bio-metric data stolen or compromised.
Although the new technology raises some questions, it provides hope as well. Only time will tell how far away the future of advanced BCI will actually be.