Cyborgs Are The Future

I’m sure many of you, like me, who have watched cyborg films dreamed of the many benefits of being a cyborg, for example, being faster, stronger and more efficient. This might become a possibility in the near future as Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk has launched a new tech start-up called Neuralink which focuses on building implants connecting human brains with computer interfaces through AI. This might be his most revolutionary business ventures as his other radical companies (SpaceX and Tesla) aim to redefine what future humans will be able to do whereas Neuralink aims to redefine what future humans will be.

The core concept is implanting group of minuscule, flexible electrodes called “threads” into the human brain by a neurosurgical robot. These threads then work by detecting and recording the electrical impulses emitted by neutrons in and brain and transmit this information to outside of our body. The brain has a very sophisticated defence mechanism and so the threads are individually inserted into the brain by a tiny needle and the end of a robot measuring only 24 microns in diameter. This allows the robot to target specific regions of the brain and avoid damaging any crucial blood vessels. To further safety, the operation only involves a two to eight millimetre incision for the chop to be placed which also requires no stitching afterwards. Furthermore, in the future Neuralink aim to instead use a laser beam to pierce the skull with a series of holes in a similar fashion to laser eye surgery.

As many as 10 implants could potentially be inserted into one hemisphere of the brain. These would then be connected to a conductive coil lining the back of the ear via small wires tunnelling the scalp. The coil would be wirelessly connected to a portable device called the “Link” containing a Bluetooth radio and battery. The Link is controlled through a smartphone app which can alter the software and repair bugs via the Bluetooth without directly tampering with the chip. In terms of bringing the company hopes to start patient testing before the end of 2020.

Model of the Physical Appearance of the Implant, Source: Neuralink Website

Model of the Physical Appearance of the Implant, Source: Neuralink Website

The initial goal is to utilise Neuralink to further understand and treat patients such as those with brain or spine-related disorders. However, as Elon Musk claimed in a recent conference the uses could be expanded to even enhancing human brains allowing humans to have the option of symbiosis with AI. According to Musk, this would allow humans to maintain pace with developments in AI and so we do not as a species fall too behind AI.

However, with such a radical concept come many obstacles not least that according to a survey Americans were most sceptical about Biotechnology. Additionally, our understanding of the brain is still quite limited. However, scientists argue that it is possible to decode all the things in the brain without fully understanding the dynamics of the brain. Neurosurgeons argue that we are approaching a sufficient understanding of neurones in association with machine learning to start to build the implants in humans.


Another crucial problem is that historically there have never been more than a few hundred electrodes in a human brain simultaneously. To put this into perspective, a couple of hundred of electrodes would only be able to communicate a simply spelt out message. Ian Stevenson researched this problem which suggested the number of neurones we can simultaneously record seems to double every 7.4 years. If this rate is consistent, it would take us to the end of this century to be able to record a million neurones.

Moreover, intensive brain surgery not only being a major safety issue is an expensive process increasing the variable costs of production. However, Musk hopes to introduce an automated process in the future due to the capacity and financial constraint of a limited number of neurosurgeons however a Lasik-Like machine would be needed for this scale.

 
Common Type of Lasik Machine, Source: Max Hospital

Common Type of Lasik Machine, Source: Max Hospital

 


However, there are also other more practical methods such as using silk which can be rolled up into a thin bundle and inserted into the brain relatively non-invasively. From there it should theoretically spread around the brain and sink into the contours. Alternatively, it is possible to print an electrode array on the skin like a temporary tattoo. A similar method could be applied to the brain.

The wireless form of the device in itself brings many challenges as the device willed to be able to send and receive a considerable amount of data wirelessly. This means it will also have to cater for a range of things such as signal amplification and data compression.


Therefore to conclude the core concepts of Neuralink are revolutionary especially when considering some of the later applications such as brain enhancing. However, there are substantial practical and safety obstacles such as damaging crucial blood vessels which will need to be tackled first.