By Matthew McCarthy
Technology and Innovation Writer
On Friday August 28th, Elon Musk CEO of SpaceX, Tesla, and co-founder of the tech startup Neuralink held a livestream through YouTube to update the public of the advancements of one of his more recent projects. Neuralink was founded in 2016 with the mission of creating and implementing brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) which are microchips implanted in a person’s brain. Elon Musk has been in the public spotlight—more so than usual—with the recent success of SpaceX’s Demo-2 mission which brought back American spaceflight. It is most likely because of that recent positive publicity that Neuralink decided to give the world a glimpse into the future they are trying to create. However, the livestream was not meant to entice investors or to intrigue consumers, according to Musk the purpose was to attract the world’s brightest minds to join him at Neuralink and help with the development of their BMI. But what is their brain-machine interface, what does it do, how is it implanted, and how close are we to buying whatever we want from Amazon with our minds?
Be assured that in the four years since its creation Neuralink has not been sitting idle, they were able to attract some of the best neurologists, computer scientists, software developers, engineers, and many other professionals in a variety of fields. From there they began to develop the Link, their own version of the Neuralink. Using microscopic wires and electrodes the Link is designed to sense the electrical signals of the brain and in real time interpret them into inputs on a computer. The intention is for users to begin with learning to control a cursor with their thoughts, and then move onto keyboards and even game controllers. However, there are many steps that Neuralink both must and already have overcome in their goal of pioneering this new level of computing. They have been developing wires and microchips small enough and flexible enough to be safely implanted onto the brain using only bio-compatible materials. The product design must also ensure that the BMI will be able to last without breaking down over time. However, in this research they found that their hardware would be too small and too flexible to be safely inserted by the human hand. This led them to develop a prototype for a surgical robot created specifically to implant the Link which was presented during the livestream. This is only a small taste of the advancements Neuralink are been making.
What will the Link be used for? As of right now the BMIs are not intended for use in healthy people. The first users will be people with spinal cord injuries, as the ability to control computers with thoughts would open a world of possibilities to those suffering from paralysis. Neuralink also hopes to further develop the Link to give the brain stimuli to recreate sounds and the sensation of touch for those who have lost the ability. Elon Musk also brought up the idea of using BMIs to create a new type of care for those suffering from mental illness. The far-off goal is to give healthy people the option to connect with their minds, but the first goal is to help through the medical field. Currently, Neuralink is conducting animal experiments and are being reviewed by the FDA to begin human trials. The world has changed so much in the nine months of 2020, but Elon Musk’s live stream reminded us that we should not get too comfortable even with our “new normal” as the pace of technology continues to quicken.
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