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Elon Musk wants to merge man and machine – here’s what he’ll need to work out

Elon Musk wants to merge man and machine – here’s what he’ll need to work out

Computers and brains already talk to each other daily in high-tech labs – and they do it better and better. For example, disabled people can now learn to govern robotic limbs by the sheer power of their mind. The hope is that we may one day be able to operate spaceships with our thoughts, upload our brains to computers and, ultimately, create cyborgs.

Now Elon Musk is joining the race. The CEO of Tesla and SpaceX has acquired Neuralink, a company aiming to establish a direct link between the mind and the computer. Musk has already shown how expensive space technology can be run as a private enterprise. But just how feasible is his latest endeavour?

Neurotechnology was born in the 1970s when Jaques Vidal proposed that electroencephalography (EEG), which tracks and records brain-wave patterns via sensors placed on the scalp (electrodes), could be used to create systems that allow people to control external devices directly with their mind. The idea was to use computer algorithms to transform the recorded EEG signals into commands. Since then, interest in the idea has been growing rapidly.

Indeed, these “brain-computer interfaces” have driven a revolution in the area of assistive technologies – letting people with quadriplegia feed themselves and even walk again. In the past few years, major investments in brain research from the US (the BRAIN initiative) and the EU (the Human Brain project) have further advanced research on them. This has pushed applications of this technology into the area of “human augmentation” – using the technology to improve our cognition and other abilities.

The combination of humans and technology could be more powerful than artificial intelligence. For example, when we make decisions based on a combination of perception and reasoning, neurotechnologies could be used to augment our perception. This could help us in situations such when seeing a very blurry image from a security camera and having to decide whether to intervene or not.

EEG recording cap. Chris Hope/wikipedia, CC BY-SA

Despite investments, the transition from using the technology in research labs to everyday life is still slow. The EEG hardware is totally safe for the user, but records very noisy signals. Also, research labs have been mainly focused on using it to understand the brain and to propose innovative applications without any follow-up in commercial products. Other very promising initiatives, such as using commercial EEG systems to let people drive a car with their thoughts, have remained isolated.

To try to overcome some of these limitations, several major companies have recently announced investments in research into brain-computer interfaces. Bryan Johnson from human intelligence company Kernel recently acquired the MIT spin-off firm KRS, which is promising to make a data-driven revolution in understanding neurodegenerative diseases. Facebook is hiring a brain-computer interface engineer to work in its secretive hardware division, Building 8.

Pie in the sky?

Musk’s company is the latest. Its “neural lace” technology involves implanting electrodes in the brain to measure signals. This would allow getting neural signals of much better quality than EEG – but it requires surgery. The project is still quite mysterious, although Musk has promised more details about it soon. Last year he stated that brain-computer interfaces are needed to confirm humans’ supremacy over artificial intelligence.

The project might seem ambitious, considering the limits of current technology. BCI spellers, which allow people to spell out words by looking at letters on a screen, are still much slower than traditional communication means, which Musk has already defined as “incredibly slow”. Similar speed limitations apply when using the brain to control a video game.

After cars and space, will Musk revolutionise neurotechnologies? Maurizio Pesce from Milan, Italia, CC BY-SA

What we really need to make the technology reliable is more accurate, non-invasive techniques to measure brain activity. We also need to improve our understanding of the brain processes and how to decode them. Indeed, the idea of uploading or downloading our thoughts to or from a computer is simply impossible with our current knowledge of the human brain. Many processes related to memory are still not understood by neuroscientists. The most optimistic forecasts say it will be at least 20 years before brain-computer interfaces will become technologies that we use in our daily lives.

But that doesn’t make Musk’s initiative useless. The neural lace could initially be used to study the brain mechanisms and treat disorders such as epilepsy or major depression. Together with electrodes for “reading” the brain activity, we could also implant electrodes for stimulating the brain – making it possible to detect and halt epileptic seizures.

Brain-computer interfaces also face major ethical issues, especially those based on sensors surgically implanted in the brain. Most people are unlikely to want to have brain surgery – or be fit to have it – unless vital for their health. This could significantly limit the number of potential users of Musk’s neural lace. Kernel’s original idea when acquiring the company KRS was also to implant electrodes in people’s brain, but the company changed its plans six months later due to difficulties related to invasive technologies.

It’s easy for billionaires like Musk to be optimistic about the development of brain-computer interfaces. But, rather than dismissing them, let’s remember that these visions are nevertheless crucial. They push the boundaries and help researchers set long-term goals.

There’s every reason to be optimistic. Neurotechnology started only started a few years after man first set foot on the moon – perhaps reflecting the need for a new big challenge after such a giant leap for mankind. And the brain-computer interfaces were indeed pure science fiction at the time.

In 1965, the Sunday comic strip “Our New Age” stated:

By 2016, man’s intelligence and intellect will be able to be increased by drugs and by linking human brains directly to computers!

We are not there yet, but together we can win the challenge.

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