By Saskia Pearl
In 1973, the computer scientist Jacques Vidal suggested that electroencephalography, a technology which tracks brain wave patterns, could be used to grant someone the ability to control a device using merely their thoughts. This claim led to the birth of neurotechnology, a field that has since been explored by individuals such as Elon Musk.
As if conquering space wasn’t enough, the ambitious CEO of SpaceX and Tesla has set his mind on what he believes to be the next big development: a brain-computer interface (BCI). His company, Neuralink, has been creating a technology based off of Vidal’s concept. The aim is to enable a computer to be directly controlled by brain activity using robots, chips, and electrodes. Essentially the beginning of every dystopian movie.
The company is developing a coin-sized chip which will be implanted in the patient’s brain, with extremely thin wires branching out further into the brain. These wires contain 1,024 electrodes which detect neuronal activity, and the chip relays this information to computers for further analysis. Since the chip and wires are remarkably minute, Neuralink is also developing a robot to implant the chip in the patient’s brain, in a way comparable to that of a sewing machine.
The successful development and application of Neuralink could undisputedly lead to major developments in the field of neurology. Neuralink claims the technology has the potential to not only restore the motor function of patients, but also treat disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Following the $205 million funding, the company announced that the first commercial applications of the chip would be directed at quadriplegic people. In 2019 on the ‘Artificial Intelligence’ podcast, Musk claimed that Neuralink could “solve a lot of brain-related diseases”, using examples of schizophrenia and autism. Not only is this a very bold statement, but it is also severely inaccurate considering neither are actually diseases. Furthermore, in August 2020 Musk tweeted “Still far from LASIK but could get pretty close in a few years”indicating that this treatment could become as ubiquitous and simple as laser eye surgery.
Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that Elon Musk is notoriously aspirational about his projects and Neuralink has progressed much more slowly than he publicly promised. Therefore, even if it is a success, it was supposed to be tested on humans by 2020, and human testing still hasn’t begun in 2022. However one cannot rush developments such as these and if the BCI could allow severely paralyzed people to see , feel or hear sensory inputs, it would be groundbreaking. Not only that, but studying neuronal patterns could enable doctors to detect and stop epileptic seizures and monitor disorders such as depression.
On the other hand, there are copious moral and economic issues with Musk’s company. Dr Rylie Green, head of Bioengineering at Imperial College London, told Insider that the idea of performing an unnecessary brain operation on a healthy patient is wrong due to the fact that it is a “very, very high-risk surgery”. The surgery is not only invasive, but implants a foreign device in the patient’s brain for a non-medical purpose. This has never been allowed within the medical community and there has only been one case of a non-medical surgery with a brain implant: the neurologist Phil Kennedy. He was forced to use himself as a subject in a somewhat underground operation and subsequently suffered serious health complications. Not exactly encouraging when discussing Neuralink.
Not only this, but when Neuralink tests on animals, the wires protrude through their skin which raises welfare concerns. In February 2022 Neuralink was accused of “inadequate animal care and highly invasive experimental head implants during the experiments” according to the animal rights group the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. They submitted a 700-page document which included necropsy reports and veterinary records to the US Department of Agriculture, and claimed that 23 monkeys had undergone suffering. Neuralink responded by announcing that it had opened a 6,000-square-foot vivarium for its monkeys in 2020 with equipment such as swings, pools, and treehouses. In a blog post they stated, “At Neuralink, we are absolutely committed to working with animals in the most humane and ethical way possible.” Personally, this statement is not entirely convincing nor do I consider a pool and treehouse luxurious. What’s also disappointing is the lack of self-awareness following serious allegations.
Although Neuralink has significant benefits both for the individual patient and the wider arena of medical research, it is an incredibly risky procedure and brings myriad ethical and practical issues to light. For someone who famously declared that AI could outsmart and endanger humans, Elon Musk is certainly enabling robots to become much more powerful by giving them access to our brains. Is this hypocritical or a stroke of genius? I suppose we’ll have to follow the journey of Neuralink to find out.
Image: Steve Jurvetson via Flickr