Neuralink: The ultimate cure for neurological disorders or a real-life Black Mirror episode?
Imagine a world where everyone has a wireless implant inserted into their brain connected to a smart phone app. The device enhances their brain function and corrects all neurological disorders whilst permitting telepathic communication, storing and replaying memories digitally and driving a car with just their minds.
For many this is the stuff of science fiction, but with developments of Elon Musk’s Neuralink it might be possible that this level of technology is achieved within the next decade, not least my lifetime.
In August, close to 200,000 people tuned into a broadcast hosted by the business magnate where he launched his most ambitious project to date – mastering the greatest wonder of the universe. The human brain. He hopes to accomplish this feat with an innovative brain-machine interface device, that will change the game in the treatment of neurological disease.
The Neuralink contraption consists of a coin shaped implant, called the Link, with 1,024 miniscule electrodes on its under surface ordered into threads around five microns wide. As the most dexterous surgeons can only achieve controlled movements of 50 microns, Neuralink are developing a custom-made surgical robot to implant this device. This machine would tactfully place the threads in the brain’s outer cortex after drilling a coin shaped hole in the skull. Once done, it would replace the excised skull segment with the Link and suture the scalp over the device, making it inconspicuous to a third party. Musk wryly mused that he could have the device right now and no one would know.
Amazingly the procedure is promised not to require general anaesthesia and to be undertaken in an outpatient clinic. Through the projections the Link will be able to decode electrical output impulses in that brain area and configure an appropriate input signal for a desired neurological function. It will likely connect to an app on your smart phone where data will be stored, and actions initiated.
One cure to heal them all?
Musk’s primary objective is to use the chip to treat a myriad of neurological disorders ranging from paraplegia to schizophrenia. As the device will originally be placed in the outer cortex of the brain, where our motor control occurs, spinal cord injuries and improving artificial limb function will be the first target for Neuralink. The idea is to provide a brain controlled artificial limb for amputees. Sensors attached to the limb will be connected wirelessly to the Link to send signals to the primary somatosensory cortex, providing the limb with authentic feeling and sensation. The primary motor cortex could then dictate to the limb, via the Link, specific fine motor movements. This wireless implant will surpass current devices that rely on numerous external wires and compartments. A similar mechanism will be used to treat paraplegia by bypassing damaged spinal nerves.
Once having mastered the sensory and motor cortices of the brain, it would not be difficult to transfer this application to targeting the primary auditory and visual cortices. Whilst providing patients with corrected hearing and vision, it could spell the end for hearing aids and glasses. No longer would my dear grandma spend a shopping trip retracing her steps attempting to find the hearing aids she dropped!
There’s no doubt this device could have a copious amount of socio-economic benefits, if successful in treating devastating neurological diseases such as dementia. Annual cost for dementia care and treatment in the UK stands at £34.7 billion a year, working out as £32,250 per dementia patient. Due to shortcomings in the social care system, the majority of this expense is covered by patient families themselves. Current therapeutics are underwhelming, only alleviate symptoms and do little to reverse or even prevent disease progression. Part of the problem is that the pathological process of dementias such as Alzheimer’s disease begin years before symptoms develop, at which the patient has reached the point of no return. Neuralink could solve this problem by inserting electrodes in the hippocampus, the site of memory processing and learning, to screen for early stages of neurodegeneration and reverse the pathology with the appropriate input signals. Universal use of this method could save billions of pounds from dementia care, which could be diverted to other areas of society.
Journey to the centre of the brain
However, for Neuralink to be able to treat mental health disorders and dementias, they will need to overcome two hurdles. Firstly, they will need to assimilate a safe way to extend these electrodes into deeper brain regions such as the limbic system and hippocampus that mediate emotion and memory formation respectively. This becomes an increasingly dangerous procedure with the risk of damaging blood vessels and the brain’s ventricular system more likely.
Secondly to overcome disorders such as addiction and depression, they will need to decipher a far more comprehensive understanding of their neuropathological pathways that goes beyond current neuropsychiatric literature. Musk’s device would function therapeutically by machine learning – ascertaining what amalgamations of neural signals constitute a specific behaviour and consequently deciding what inputs to manipulate this outcome. Unfortunately, the neurological basis of mental disorders remains ambiguous and complex to neuroscientists. There does not seem to be a set pathological mechanism for depression, and therefore difficult for the Link to find a series of neural signals that constitute to someone feeling depressed.
‘The future is going to be weird’
Unsurprisingly, Musk has more radically ambitious objectives aside from therapeutics for his product. By integrating electrical signals radiating from Broca’s area, the brain region for mediating speech planning, the device could decode words being thought without being vocalised. Consequently, sending the outputs to another individual’s brain containing the Link device, Musk would achieve his goal of inaugurating telepathic communication.
Musk also envisions a world where you can record and replay your memories using this chip. He hopes memories and personalities could be downloaded onto a remote disk or new body, thus creating a digital version of yourself that will exist long after you die. Musk also proposed ‘over time we could give somebody super vision’, when discussing using future versions to supply users infrared, ultraviolet or X-Ray vision. Your own devices and vehicles could even be controlled by your very thoughts by using this device that connects brain with AI. In Musk’s own words, ‘the future is going to be weird’.
Get out my head!
Whilst the radical benefits of Neuralink are plentiful, even Musk himself admits this proposition is ‘increasingly sounding like a Black Mirror episode’. The potential security and data privacy risks with connecting AI with the human brain are frightening. The consequences of a hacker gaining access to an individual’s signal outputs from their Broca’s area are serious. One could theoretically ascertain deeply personal information by literally eavesdropping on a person’s thoughts. The possibilities become graver if a hacker can send input signals into the device. Unwanted stimulation in motor regions for limb muscles could trigger a pilot to swerve a plane into the ocean, having catastrophic consequences. Or a hacker could manipulate an individual in making a reckless financial decision at the gain of the perpetrator.
Additionally, the Link could provide a new opportunity for advertisers. Malicious adware could stimulate brief pop ups to enter your visual centre, whilst releasing dopamine into your brain’s reward pathways, increasing the likelihood of you buying their product. Political parties could use a similar method to manipulate the electorate to vote them into power.
Musk and his team at Neuralink will be well aware of these potential dangers and will be developing methods to counteract these issues. These could include deliberately limiting the range of communication of the device with an outside source, possessing on-off switches, and having robust anti-hacking software that detects concerning signs of neural patterns.
Long road ahead…
There is no doubt that Neuralink has a cataclysmic mountain to climb. Unless the ethical issues are addressed and unprecedented understanding of the brain achieved, this device could cause more problems than solve in the future. However, if Musk is able to pull this off, the accomplishment of eradicating neurological disorders will be revolutionary.
So, whilst Neuralink’s August presentation is synonymous with an opening scene of a Charlie Brooker episode, you cannot help but feel intrigued.