Last night we witnessed a live streamed event that may prove more significant that the moon landing. Elon Musk showed the remarkable progress of Neurlink. AI, robotics, physics, material science, medicine and biology collided in a Big Bang event, where we saw an affordable device that can be inserted into your brain to solve important spinal and brain problems. By problems they meant memory loss, hearing loss, blindness, paralysis, extreme pain, seizures, strokes and brain damage. They also included mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, insomnia and addiction. Ultimately, I have no doubt that this will lead to huge decrease in human suffering. God doesn’t seem to have solved the problem of human suffering, we as a species, through science are on the brink of doing it by and for ourselves.
Current technology (Utah array) has only 100 channels per array and the wires are rigid, inserted crudely with an air hammer. You have to wear a box on your head, with the risk of infection, and it requires a great deal of medical expertise. It does a valuable job but is low bandwidth and destroys about a sugarcube of brain matter. Nevertheless, it has greatly improved the lives of over 150,000 people.
Musk showed three little piggies in pens, one without an implant, one that had an implant, now removed without any effects and one with an implant (they showed the signal live). Using a robot as surgeon the Neuralink tech can be inserted in an hour, without a general anaesthetic and you can be out of hospital the same day. The coin size device is inserted in the skull, beneath the skull. Its fibres are only 5 microns in diameter (a human hair is 100 microns) and it has ten times the channels of he Utah array, with a megabit bandwidth rate, to and from your smartphone. All channels are read and write.
Smartphone talks and listens to brain
When writing to the brain, you don’t want to damage anything and you need precise control over a range of electric fields in both time and space, also delivering a wide range of currents to different parts of the brain. The device uses Bluetooth to and from your smartphone. Indeed, it is the mass production of smartphone chips and sensors that have made this breakthrough possible.
What really made this possible was Elon Musk, a remarkable man, who brought together this remarkable team of AI experts, roboticists, material scientists, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers and neurologists. In the Q&A session afterwards, they were brilliant.
I discussed Neurolink in my book ‘AI for Learning’ speculating that at some distant time machine would meld with mind, and this would open up possibilities for learning. I didn’t imagine that it would be kicked off just a few days after the book’s release… but here we have it. So what are the possibilities for learning?
At the very least this will give us insights into the way the brain works. We can ‘read’ the brain more precisely but also experiment to prove/disprove hypotheses on memory and learning. This will take a lot more than just reading ‘spikes’ (electrical impulses from one neuron to many) but it is a huge leap in terms of an affordable window into the brain. If we unlock memory formation, we have the key to efficient learning.
Our current interfaces, keyboards, touchscreen, gestures and voice, could also be bypassed, giving much faster ‘thought to and from machine’ communication by tapping into the phonological loop. This would be an altogether different form of interface, more akin to VR. Consciousness is a reconstructed representation of reality anyway and these new interfaces would be much more experiential as forms of consciousness, not just language.
Memories are of many types and complex, distributed things in the brain. Musk talked eloquently about being able to read memories, that means they can be stored for later retrieval. Imagine having cherished memories stored to be later experienced, like your wedding photos, only as felt conscious events, like episodic memories. There are conceptual problems with this, as memory is a reconstructive event, but at least these reconstructions could be read for later retrieval. At the wilder end of speculation Musk imagined that you could ‘read’ your entire brain, with all of its memories, store this and implant in another device.
This is not just about memories. It is our faculty of the imagination that drives us as a species forward, whether in mathematics, AI and science (Neuralink is an exemplar) but also in art and creativity. Think of the possibilities in music and other art forms, the opportunities around the creative process, where we can have imagination prostheses.
Reading memories is one thing. Imagine being able to ‘write’ memories to the brain. That is, essentially a form of learning. If we can do this, we can accelerate learning. This would be a massive leap for our species. Learning is a slow and laborious process. It takes 20nyears or more before we become functioning members of society, even then we forget much of what we were taught and learned. Our brains are seriously hindered by the limited bandwidth and processing power of our working memory. Overcoming that block, by direct writing to the brain, would allow much faster learning. Could we eliminate great tranches of boring schooling? Such reading and writing of memories would, of course, be encrypted for privacy. You wouldn’t want your brain hacked!
Consciousnessbook I talk about the philosophical discussion around extended consciousness and cognition. Some think the internet and personal devices like smartphones have already extended cognition. The Neuralink team are keenly aware that they may have opened up a window on the mind that may ultimately solve the hard problem of consciousness, something that has puzzled us for thousands of years. If we can really identify correlates between what we think in consciousness and what is happening in the brain and can even simulate and create consciousness, we are well on the way to solving that problem.
End to suffering
But the real win here, is the opportunity to limit suffering, pain, physical disabilities, autism, learning difficulties and many forms of mental illness. It may also be able to read electrical and chemical signals for other diseases, leading to their prevention. This is only the beginning, like the first transistor or telephone call. It is a scalable solution and as versions roll out with more channels, better interpretation using AI, in more areas of the brain, there are endless possibilities. This event was, for me, more important than man landing on the moon as it has its focus, not on grand gestures and political showmanship, but on reducing human suffering. That is a far more noble goal. It is about time we stopped obsessing with the ethics of AI, with endless dystopian navel gazing, to recognise that it has revolutionary possibilities in the reduction of suffering.
The good news is that they have FDA Breakthrough Device designation and will be doing human trials soon.
My concern is that the potential to help people with disabilities and other problems is a clever spin that will allow them to develop the interface. The true aim is for the interface to work with everyone’s personal device (phone). Anyone with such an implant would be advantaged in the job market because it would make them effectively smarter. This would put pressure on anyone at working age to get an implant. The implant would presumably, make people susceptible to external control.
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