A little over a month ago, pioneering entrepreneur Elon Musk unveiled his next big venture, a company called Neuralink that will allow humans to ultimately keep pace with machines and combat them (if need be) by doing the most expedient and necessary thing -- becoming one.
A few weeks ago, Musk went on to extrapolate in detail on blogger and cartoonist Tim Urban's delightfully exhaustive and highly readable blog Wait But Why about his new company's plans to devise a technology that will allow the brain to communicate with a machine or computer directly -- dubbed a brain-machine-interface (BMI). Musk suggested that the technology will be in the form of a "neural lace" that insinuates itself inside the skull and forms a "mesh" over the brain with electrodes that connect with the synapses. Its first application, he said, would be for brain injuries:
The first use of the technology will be to repair brain injuries as a result of stroke or cutting out a cancer lesion, where somebody's fundamentally lost a certain cognitive element. It could help with people who are quadriplegics or paraplegics by providing a neural shunt from the motor cortex down to where the muscles are activated. It can help with people who, as they get older, have memory problems and can't remember the names of their kids, through memory enhancement, which could allow them to function well to a much later time in life -- the medically advantageous elements of this for dealing with mental disablement of one kind or another, which of course happens to all of us when we get old enough, are very significant.
THE 'WIZARD HAT'
What this "neural lace" -- called a "wizard hat" in Urban's blogpost -- will ultimately do is to solve the problem of bandwidth when it comes to BMIs. As Urban explains it, you generally type at a 20th of the speed at which you think, and therefore this isn't very flattering when it comes to our accomplishment of being able to measure 500 neurons at once using a couple of hundred electrodes. The eventual target is to transmit our thoughts at the speed at which they occur: 1 million simultaneously recorded neurons. Once Musk's plan to cure brain injuries becomes a reality, BMIs will emerge from the shadows of voodoo science to mass applications that will transform the way we live.
In this magical new world that will give Harry Potter and Merlin a run for their money, you will be able to play a musical instrument, steer your car, switch on your coffee machine, and share complex emotions that usually defy the narrow constraints of words. In fact, as Urban describes it, you could share a hike with your loved one at home by allowing him or her to jack in to your visual cortex, as well as share the rest of your senses, have a back-and-forth thought session about the experience, and have a fight about who needs to take out the garbage (this last one extrapolated from my own personal experience of what we couples often share), all without uttering a word. Musk explained it best:
If I were to communicate a concept to you, you would essentially engage in consensual telepathy. You wouldn't need to verbalize unless you want to add a little flair to the conversation or something [laughs], but the conversation would be conceptual interaction on a level that's difficult to conceive of right now.
One can go on about the many incredible possibilities that this scenario has to offer, but the best person to hear this from is Urban, who does so with great aplomb, so I urge you to read his entertaining account about this strange new world.
So, how on earth does one create such a BMI with "1 million simultaneously recorded neurons"? Urban mentions a group that's working on a "nano-scale, electrode-lined mesh so tiny it can be injected into the brain with a syringe". Another one is developing an interface made of silk and studded with silicon transistor arrays that will spread out and meld onto the surface of the brain. Another scientist, Hong Yeo, unveiled his electrode array tattoo printed on his skin at a TED talk. One co-founder of Neuralink, DJ Seo, has designed silicon sensors the width of your hair to be sprinkled around your brain like "dust", which would communicate via a nano transistor lodged nearby. This is the sort of stuff you may stumble upon in a Philip K Dick short story.
Not everyone is buying this grand vision though. An article by Antonio Regalado in MIT's Technology Review, while admitting that there is no saying what future technology can accomplish, thinks that "these achievements will be very difficult to attain, and the time lines are not only wrong -- they're pure malarkey."
Those are strong words to describe a company launched by a visionary entrepreneur, but Regalado has many good points. For one thing, Musk's gameplan involves brain implants that require neurosurgery conducted at the same casualness quotient as a tonsillectomy today. Yet, the only instance of a brain implant in history was apparently one undertaken by a scientist conducting research on (thankfully) himself, which led to catastrophic consequences. Also, implants to stop epileptic seizures apparently took 16 years to get approval.
Neuralink's solutions at this point are all ingenious but apparently still stuck in the world of science fiction, according to experts. They are all brilliant postulates on what could happen -- blue sky exercises more than anything else. Suggesting a four-year timeline means that something pretty seismic in all of the above arenas need to happen pretty soon which, to put it mildly, is unlikely. Regalado:
Brain-implant technology has been developing pretty slowly and is still mostly stuck in academia precisely because it's so complex. You need a way to record from the brain, a compact wireless chipset to transmit the signals, algorithms to know what they mean, and the medical knowledge to actually carry it off.
Musk isn't the only one attracting incredulity for seemingly outlandish AI plans. Apparently, a few weeks ago, Facebook nudged its recent hire and ex-DARPA boss to declare that the social network would have a skullcap that will be able to hammer out sentences from your brain at a rate of 100 words a minute, putting to shame whatever stenographers there are left in the world (not to mention take their jobs) and will go on to help "share" your thoughts.
BETTING ON MUSK
Yet, when everything is said and done, Musk is a hard man to bet against, a consummate entrepreneur with big ideas and the ingenuity, guts, and panache to will them into existence despite the humongous odds against them. Tesla and SpaceX are both glittering examples of this. In fact, it is Musk's overarching vision of working for humanity that makes him -- as outlandish as some of his new ideas appear to many -- worth listening to, and rooting for.
In the last few years Musk has probably been associated with the word "cyborg" more times than Blade Runner. The origins of his plans to repair brain injuries and conjure up a business plan for BMIs have their roots, ironically, in his deep suspicion of AI.
Musk is convinced that if machines are allowed to "learn" at the levels they are currently able to thanks to a new generation of processors such as Google's TPUs, their "intelligence" will easily outstrip that of humanity's, eventually subjugating us to not unlike the HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
"We need to be super careful with AI. Potentially more dangerous than nukes," Musk tweeted in 2014, a year in which he also said that he's "increasingly inclined to think that there should be some regulatory oversight, maybe at the national and international level just to make sure that we don't do something very foolish."
His concerns are so real and urgent that he has co-created a non-profit called Open AI that, armed with a $1 billion investment, will push AI in directions that no machine has gone before. The idea is that with AI everywhere, no one person or Skynet-like entity will be able to have monopoly over it for their own malicious motives. Fixing brain issues is simply an early benefit along the path to keeping AI in perpetual check, while reaping the enormous benefits from it.
Here too, there are doubters, such as Miguel Nicolelis, a Brazilian scientist and physician best known for his revolutionary work in teaching a monkey to let go of a joystick that it was using to control and move a shape in a video game, and instead play the game and move the object purely by thought. Nicolelis agrees with Musk insofar as to think that if we are able to communicate directly with machines, we will achieve "quantum leaps" in progress.
Yet, "the idea that digital machines no matter how hyper-connected, how powerful, will one day surpass human capacity is total baloney," Nicolelis told the Guardian. His basic contention? Human's distinctly original thoughts are "unpredictable nonlinear interactions among billions of cells ... Our brains do not work in an algorithmic way and are not digital machines ... It used to be annoying to see these kinds of statements, but now it's becoming serious. It's leading to mass hysteria."
This may be true, but if you told me 30 years ago that we would soon be mass-correcting eyesight using laser surgery or seeing self-driving electric cars on the roads and affordable transport-rockets in the sky, I may have laughed you off.
Unbelievable timeline or not, I am one monkey who, if forced to make a bet, will probably end up putting all my chips on Musk.