Once upon a time, interfering with the normal operation of the human brain with the use of advanced technology seemed like science fiction. There were lobotomies, and there was shock therapy, but there were no computer-run programs designed to stimulate the mind. Right now, we may be on the forefront of such a technology thanks to Neuralink and its brainchild, Elon Musk. Just one question remains – what is Neuralink and how does it work?
Neural lace is an injectable mesh that is designed to lie over or inside the cerebral cortex to provide stimulation above and beyond what the human brain can create on its own. Think about it like this: right now, researchers can use electrodes placed outside the scalp to get a glimpse inside the electrical activity in the brain, but they can’t use those electrodes to stimulate meaningful movement. For example, while those electrodes may stimulate an arm to move, they can’t tell an arm how to move or where to move. With neural lace, however, this may one day be possible.
Neural lace does have startling implications, but it’s nowhere near ready for use. This is because researchers haven’t quite mapped the brain enough to discover how it creates such movements, how it processes information from the eyes to create vision, or even how it reacts to sensations from the skin. Once this brain mapping is complete, all bets are off, and the possibilities will be endless.
So, what is Neuralink? The goal of Neuralink is to create an implantable computer-brain interface using a technology much like neural lace. Essentially, through a series of implants, the company envisions possible scenarios in which a computer may be able to hijack or enhance the brain, whether for medical use or entertainment. In fact, in 2017, interviews with Neuralink representatives showed that they planned to develop the product to treat brain-related disorders first, then provide what they referred to as “human enhancement”.
Elon Musk’s vision is a “merger of biological intelligence and digital intelligence”, which is terrifying, yet somehow exciting at the same time. Imagine being able to browse the internet without the need for a screen. You just ask your brain for information, and its digital connection finds that information and processes it in nanoseconds. That’s the ultimate goal, and the company’s version of human enhancement.
Elon Musk has said Neuralink wants to push this technology to as many consumers as possible, but it’s important to note that the company has a very, very long way to go before Neuralink will be available for human use. That said, neural lace was used in rats with some degree of success in 2015, as per a study published in Nature Nanotechnology. This study simply focused on the researchers’ ability to safely and effectively implant the lace, though – not the implications of doing so or the long-term effects.
Because the efficacy of neural lace is not known, and because the long-term side effects on lab rats cannot yet be studied, it’s safe to say that it’ll be some time before Neuralink will be available for even clinical testing. As for potential side effects, one can only speculate. There’s the risk of infection in the brain from injecting the lace, and there’s the risk for brain injury, as well. Aside from that, it’s anyone’s guess. Digital mind control may bring with it terrifying side effects we can only imagine, or it may be side-effect free.
What is Neuralink? It’s a digital-biological interface designed to link the brain to the digital world to varying degrees. It certainly seems fascinating, but Neuralink is a long, long way from being marketable. In fact, it’s not even been tested in animal studies yet. However, the idea is generating a pretty big buzz in the nanotechnology world, and it’s certainly got people thinking.