What does the future look like for humans and machines? Elon Musk would argue that it involves wiring brains directly up to computers – but neuroscientists tell Inverse that's easier said than done.
On August 28, Musk and his team unveiled the latest updates from secretive firm Neuralink with a demo featuring pigs implanted with their brain chip device. These chips are called Links, and they measure 0.9 inches wide by 0.3 inches tall. They connect to the brain via wires, and provide a battery life of 12 hours per charge, after which the user would need to wirelessly charge again. During the demo, a screen showed the real-time spikes of neurons firing in the brain of one pig, Gertrude, as she snuffed around her pen during the event.
It was an event designed to show how far Neuralink has come in terms of making its science objectives reality. But how much of Musk's ambitions for Links are still in the realm of science fiction?
Neuralink argues the chips will one day have medical applications, listing a whole manner of ailments that its chips could feasibly solve. Memory loss, depression, seizures, and brain damage were all suggested as conditions where a generalized brain device like the Link could help.
Ralph Adolphs, Bren Professor of Psychology, Neuroscience, and Biology at California Institute of Technology, tells Inverse Neuralink's announcement was "tremendously exciting" and "a huge technical achievement."
Neuralink is "a good example of technology outstripping our current ability to know how to use it," Adolphs says. "The primary initial application will be for people who are ill and for clinical reasons it is justified to implant such a chip into their brain. It would be unethical to do so right now in a healthy person."
"But who knows what the future holds?" He adds.
Adolphs says the chip is comparable to the natural processes that emerge through evolution. Currently, to interface between the brain and the world, humans use their hands and mouth. But to imagine just sitting and thinking about these actions is a lot harder, so a lot of the future work will need to focus on making this interface with the world feel more natural, Adolphs says.
Achieving that goal could be further out than the Neuralink demo suggested. John Krakauer, chief medical and scientific officer at MindMaze and professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins University, tells Inverse that his view is humanity is "still a long way away" from consumer-level linkups.
"Let me give a more specific concern: The device we saw was placed over a single sensorimotor area," Krakauer says. "If we want to read thoughts rather than movements (assuming we knew their neural basis) where do we put it? How many will we need? How does one avoid having one’s scalp studded with them? No mention of any of this of course."
While a brain linkup may get people "excited" because it "has echoes of Charles Xavier in the X-Men," Krakauer argues that there's plenty of potential non-invasive solutions to help people with the conditions Neuralink says its technology will treat.
These existing solutions don't require invasive surgery, but Krakauer fears "the cool factor clouds critical thinking."
But Elon Musk, Neuralink's CEO, wants the Link to take humans far beyond new medical treatments.
The ultimate objective, according to Musk, is for Neuralink to help create a symbiotic relationship between humans and computers. Musk argues that Neuralink-like devices could help humanity keep up with super-fast machines. But Krakauer finds such an ambition troubling.
"I would like to see less unsubstantiated hype about a brain 'Alexa' and interfacing with A.I.," Krakauer says. "The argument is if you can’t avoid the singularity, join it. I’m sorry but this angle is just ridiculous."
Even a general-purpose linkup could be much further away from development than it may seem. Musk told WaitButWhy in 2017 that a general-purpose linkup could be eight to 10 years away for people with no disability. That would place the timescale for roll-out somewhere around 2027 at the latest — seven years from now.
Kevin Tracey, a neurosurgery professor and president of the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research, tells Inverse that he "can't imagine" that any of the publicly suggested diseases could see a solution "sooner than 10 years." Considering that Neuralink hopes to offer the device as a medical solution before it moves to more general-purpose implants, these notes of caution cast the company's timeline into doubt.
But unlike Krakauer, Tracey argues that "we need more hype right now." Not enough attention has been paid to this area of research, he says.
"In the United States for the last 20 years, the federal government's investment supporting research hasn't kept up with inflation," Tracey says. "There's been this idea that things are pretty good and we don't have to spend so much money on research. That's nonsense. COVID proved we need to raise enthusiasm and investment."
Neuralink's device is just one part of the brain linkup puzzle, Tracey explains. There are three fields at play: molecular medicine to make and find the targets, neuroscience to understand how the pathways control the target, and the devices themselves. Advances in each area can help the others. Neuralink may help map new pathways, for example, but it's just one aspect of what needs to be done to make it work as planned.
Neuralink's smaller chips may also help avoid issues with brain scarring seen with larger devices, Tracey says. And advancements in robots can also help with surgeries, an area Neuralink has detailed before.
But perhaps the biggest benefit from the announcement is making the field cool again.
"If and to the extent that a new, very cool device elevates the discussion on the neuroscience implications of new devices, and what do we need to get these things to the benefit of humanity through more science, that's all good," Tracey says.