Are you ready to experience a Vulcan mind meld with your smartphone? It may sound like something straight out of science fiction, but tech visionary Elon Musk hopes to solve a lot of problems by implanting a chip in your brain. This isn't the same type of implant making news in Sweden, nor does it have the same goals.
His company, Neuralink, is developing a brain implant called the N1 sensor that his team hopes will allow paraplegics to walk again and offer near-telepathetic control over your devices.
What is Neuralink?
It's the newest Musk tech startup. Launched in 2016, the stated mission of Neuralink is to "create a symbiosis with artificial intelligence" through a brain-machine interface (BMI). Artificial intelligence and machine learning has already shown promise in other areas like providing next generation cybersecurity to protect America’s power grid. This is accomplished via a Bluetooth-enabled chip implanted behind the ear to access the neural pathways. The hope is that the technology can be used to treat chronic neurological conditions or brain injuries, and even allow paraplegics to control their limbs again through brain waves.
This isn't some distant dream either. The startup has ambitious goals that include FDA approval by the year's end, followed by the beginning of human trials, with a focus on patients living with quadriplegia due to C1-C4 spinal cord injuries.
Is this kind of human-computer connection even possible right now?
Yes, sort of. Scientists have long been experimenting with ways to use AI and other advanced tech in healthcare. Neurosurgeons have successfully implanted electrodes into the brains of people suffering from Parkinson's Disease, and Utah arrays have recorded brain waves. Researchers at the University of California’s San Francisco campus took it a step further by using a computer to convert brain waves to speech. Over at the University of Washington, scientists have created a mechanism that enables people to engage in games with each other using their thoughts.
The N1 chips are very small, using probes that are thinner than a single human hair. They plan to place them to within 60 microns of neurons in order to facilitate interaction with the Neuralink app. In anticipation of success for medical use, Musk and his team hope to move to the next step of using it for entertainment and AI-human interaction with personal and work devices, or even IoT.
Imagine the already misbehaving Alexa reacting to your thoughts rather than just misinterpreting your words.
Scientific and medical experts are urging everyone to put the brakes on the idea of fusing electrodes or chips into healthy brains, citing the normal reaction of the human body to foreign objects, including the possibility of a condition called gliosis resulting from the implanted electrodes. Gliosis is an indeterminable change in the glial cells of the brain due to nerve damage.
We've covered Neuralink before, but we still have some questions about the implications of this technology.
1. Is it Safe?
One fear that scientists and ethicists have is that the company is charging ahead with something that is so possibly dangerous and irreversible without conducting enough research into the safety of the project. Striving to change the lives of the disabled is admirable, but there seems to be something more than benign motives behind it.
Just because you can do something, does that really mean you should?
Brain surgery is delicate and dangerous in the best of circumstances. Although computer networks and AI have been modeled on the human brain and its complex circuitry, you can't really troubleshoot and repair a brain like a machine. There are no wearable parts you can replace in the brain, and the effects of damaged brain cells can't be reversed in most cases.
In fact, the brain is the only organ in the human body that doesn't regenerate cells when they die. The brain can compensate in certain ways, but it is never quite the same again. This is part of the problem Neuralink hopes to solve, but will it do more damage before it can?
2. Is it Secure?
It's a fact of life in the digital age: hackers are gonna hack. In fact, new technologies are like fuel to those who get a rush from conquering them. Are we going to have issues with brain hacking? Thanks to the way the internet is built, at some point the Neuralink chip will send out wireless transmissions to devices with applications that are stored on hosted servers. But even today’s most recommended web hosting services have proven vulnerable to hacking and physical failure in the form of crashed servers and downtime. What will that do to the person with an implant? Every link in the chain will need a serious upgrade.
What about more dangerous games, like causing a chip to explode or overheat? It happens in cell phones. These fears may seem a little overblown, but the potential for unforeseen consequences is real. How is Neuralink going to protect its customers from malicious actors?
3. Whom Will These Implants Benefit?
Some people are wondering "Is this just another Musk Moonshot?" Innovators in Silicon Valley live by the motto "Go hard or go home," but they haven't always been transparent about their motives or all of the ways they profit from their tech off the backs of the unsuspecting public.
Fears for public safety and physical health aside, this is a bigger and more realistic concern. If your brain generates physical data, who owns that data? Is it the patient or Neuralink? Will they be able to eventually access your thoughts and store them or sell them to third-parties? Will the government be able to access them?
These are important ethical and legal concerns, and they need to be addressed now rather than after a case study occurs.
4. Are There Privacy Concerns?
Is the potential for this kind of tech moving faster than considerations about unintended consequences? Unlike machines or virtual networks, you can't protect against vulnerabilities or data leaks in someone's brain. If it's Bluetooth enabled, does that mean other Bluetooth-connected devices can access your brain waves? Would the kind of encryption typically used in the currently popular VPN concept even function or will the cybersecurity industry need to up its game?
For decades, there have been jokes and horror stories revolving around chips implanted in people's brains. As a possible solution for head trauma and physical injuries, the idea seems to hold promise. But, we're a long way away from the reality of being able to tinker with people's minds without incurring a lot of potentially irreversible problems.
There's no doubt that Musk is a visionary with plenty of ambitious plans. The problem is, even neuroscientists don't fully understand everything about the human brain and how it works. Perhaps we should wait until he can keep his driverless cars on the road before letting him into our heads.
Sam Bocetta is a defense contractor for the U.S. Navy, a defense analyst, and a freelance journalist. He specializes in finding radical — and often heretical — solutions to "impossible"? ballistics problems. Through Lakeview Capital, he also cultivates funding for projects — usually naval, defense, and UAV startups. He writes about naval engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, marine ops, program management, defense contracting, export control, international commerce, patents, InfoSec, cryptography, cyberwarfare, and cyberdefense. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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