“There is a real danger that computers will develop intelligence and take over. We urgently need to develop direct connections to the brain so that computers can add to human intelligence rather than be in opposition” Stephen Hawking
We are about to enter a new era in human history, one where the blind will be able to see, the deaf to hear and the disabled to walk again.
People with brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, Parkinson’s and dementia will be cured.
This may sound like some kind of biblical premonition but in reality, there are technologies being developed that have the potential to accomplish all those things.
Not only that, but these technologies will give humans superpowers: humans will be able to gather, process and calculate data as quickly and efficiently as computers do.
Learning will be as simple as downloading data into the brain via a USB cable. Whether one is learning a new skill or a new language, this will be accomplished in minutes.
Neuralink’s plans for brain-reading ‘threads’ and a robot to insert them
Recently Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and SpaceX, announced a new technology called Neuralink, which will enable the human brain to connect directly into computers, allowing free communication between computer and the brain as if the brain is just another piece of hardware.
If this sounds scary, it’s because it is. Whereas past technologies have changed things around us, this one has the potential to transform humanity forever by changing the very essence of who we are.
Although Neuralink is a new and revolutionary technology, the whole concept of computers connecting directly to the brain, also known as Brain-Machine-Interaction, or BMI, has been around since the 1950s and a number of devices have been developed.
BMIs work by sticking electrodes into the brain and then monitoring and interpreting brain impulses.
One such device, the Utah Array, is a brain implant that enables people to control computers and even send text messages using their minds. This technology has been around since 2012.
Similarly, a wristband developed by CTRL-Labs in New York City allows the wearer to control a computer without moving. Neuralink is significantly different from other BMIs, and immensely more capable.
The Utah Array works with just 256 electrodes, each about half a millimetre thick. On the other hand, a single Neuralink chip has 1000 electrodes, and up to 10 chips can be implanted into a single brain. In other words, Neuralink can insert up to 10000 electrodes into a brain.
The electrodes, also called threads, are extremely small: each one is about 10 microns thick.
To get an idea of how small that is, a red blood cell is 8 microns wide.
Because they are so small, the threads are able to penetrate deep into the brain without causing any damage.
Rather than damaging brain tissue and blood vessels, they simply slip in- between them. Their microscopic size gives them another huge advantage: they’re able to communicate with individual brain cells, or neurons.
This kind of technology can provide a whole host of benefits, like curing brain diseases. Many brain diseases are caused when brain tissue is damaged. Neuralink could potentially cure these diseases by fixing the motor functions in the brain.
Then there’s the ability to control computers and other devices with the mind, which in itself has amazing potential. Some day people could control robot arms and legs attached to their bodies in lieu of limbs they lost.
Paraplegics could control their wheelchairs with their minds or, better still, be able to walk again, thanks to Ironman-like exoskeletons they control with their minds.
It may be possible to download digital content like books directly into the brain, and even augment the brain by giving it computer-like maths, logic and processing power. By connecting to the internet, Neuralink will bring all the knowledge and information on the internet directly into the brain.
Neuralink might also some day cure blindness and deafness by connecting directly into the auditory and visual cortices of the brain, transferring signals from powerful cameras and microphones directly into the brain, giving people superhuman vision and hearing.
Taking things even further, there might come a time when, rather than watching movies or playing video games for entertainment, people might be connected directly into fully immersive, digitally-created imaginary worlds, such as in the movie The Matrix.
In these worlds, all the senses will be stimulated: sight, hearing, touch and even smell; and everything will feel as real as in real life.
Neuralink will also enable scientists to better understand the human brain by sending data about the brain to computers.
This data will then be analysed and studied, unravelling some of the mysteries of the brain that have eluded us for centuries.
Although we can make dozens of predictions about what Neuralink will be capable of, the truth is, nobody really knows what its true capabilities are.
When the brain and Neuralink eventually fuse and adapt to each other, they will undoubtedly develop a kind of synergy that no one is able to predict. Such is the mysterious nature of artificial intelligence, and of our own brains.
They are at best unpredictable.
What we do know is, Elon Musk wants to perform the first human testing of Neuralink by 2020. What lies beyond, is anybody’s guess.