Elon Musk wants people to willingly implant electrodes in their brains so they might upload and download thoughts, and he’s building a company to make it happen.
This is Musk’s latest technological frontier. He’s working on an electric car revolution through Tesla and trying to send people to Mars with SpaceX. Through Neuralink, Musk plans to merge humans and machines through a technology called neural lace.
Let’s take a look at what we know and don’t know about what Musk wants to do to the human brain.
What is neural lace?
Neural lace is a super-thin mesh-like material that can be injected into the skull.
The lace serves as a collection of electrodes that, according to researchers who have injected it into mice, can monitor brain activity, strengthen brain function and even provide treatment for brain disorders. It’s an electronic technology that brings humans and machines closer together by perhaps allowing humans to — as The Wall Street Journal recently reported — “upload and download thoughts.”
The lab mice, by the way, are reportedly doing just fine.
How does it work?
Think of it as a tightly coiled bit of mesh stuffed inside a tiny needle. When the needle is inserted into the skull and the mesh is injected, the lace unfurls.
Each needle-full of lace is only millimeters in length. The metal and plastic substance finds its way to the appropriate neurons and monitors that electrical brain activity, theoretically giving you the ability to, for example, translate your thoughts into text via some type of device. Over time, the lace becomes a part of your brain, electronic particles weaving with the biological. And while it may sound kinda nuts to inject something into your skull, the lace is incredibly flexible, and it theoretically wouldn’t require removing a huge chunk of your skull to have such a thing implanted.
What will Musk’s new company do?
Neuralink will attempt to bring neural lace into the world for humans, though it may not focus on uploading and downloading thoughts just yet.
The company registered in California in July 2016, under the label of “medical research.” Musk has artificial intelligence ambitions, but the medical research label seems apt. Assuming the company can clear the inevitable legal hurdles required to inject stuff into human brains, Musk plans to use these implants to treat depression, Parkinson’s, and other brain diseases. That alone would lead to
total world domination scientific breakthroughs.
The company hardly has its bearings yet, but they’ve hired an engineer who specializes in “flexible electrodes,” and experts on electrode implants and brain function.
Why does Musk want to create neural lace?
Musk is afraid of artificial intelligence. He’s tried to get his Silicon Valley cohorts to pump the brakes on rushing to develop AI without extensive consideration for what such development means for future humans. He’s afraid that increased artificial intelligence means that robots will inevitably outpace the thinking capacity of humans.
In a way, neural lace is “if you can’t beat them, join them,” come to life.
Musk describes a fundamental difference between computers and humans as the difference in the rate of communication both are capable of. Humans can take in a lot of information with eyes and ears, but we can’t quickly disseminate those thoughts to whomever we want. Sure, we can text, but as Musk says, texting is “ridiculously slow.”
Neural lace would rebalance things. By allowing humans to translate thoughts into a type of immediate communication, our output would increase dramatically, and Musk might be a bit less afraid of the “brains” that power computers.
When does he think this will happen?
Musk recently told Vanity Fair he believes the world is four or five years out from a “meaningful partial-brain interface.” Though it’s unclear exactly what he meant by that, it’s not likely that he expects all of us to be walking around with mesh in our brains in half a decade. Rather, by that time, neural lace in humans might have evolved beyond the realm of the theoretical.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we see the product at very early stages to be demonstrated very, very soon,” said Hai (Helen) Li, a brain-inspired computing expert at Duke University. “I do believe that brain interface is going to happen.”