Secretive Company Musk Has Sunk $100M Into Opens Up

Neuralink gives presentation on its brain-reading technology
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Jul 17, 2019 9:13 AM CDT
Secretive Company Musk Has Sunk $100M Into Opens Up
In this March 14, 2019, file photo Tesla CEO Elon Musk speaks before unveiling the Model Y at Tesla's design studio in Hawthorne, Calif. Musk says in an internal memo that Tesla has enough orders to set a record, but it’s having trouble shipping vehicles to the right locations.   (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

"We want this burden of stealth mode off of us so that we can keep building and do things like normal people, such as publish papers." And with that, Neuralink shrugged off the secrecy that has surrounded it since its 2017 launch. On Tuesday it went public with the progress it has made toward its goal of connecting brains with computers, releasing a white paper and giving a presentation on its work thus far, reports USA Today. Elon Musk has sunk $100 million into the company and has said the vision is to make the implantation as routine as Lasik surgery, reports the New York Times. That future isn't imminent: The company says it hopes human trials can begin in Q2 of 2020. Musk himself weighed in on Tuesday night. More:

  • Neuralink says Stanford University neurosurgeons will get in on the experiments, which will initially require a surgeon to drill holes into the skull to facilitate the placement of super thin threads of electrodes near neurons in the brain. That method can involve an "unpleasant" vibration during the procedure, explains the company, which hopes to eventually employ lasers instead.
  • Bloomberg reports the human trials would involve drilling four 8mm holes into the skulls of paralyzed patients; the goal is to have them control computers and smartphones by just thinking of doing so.
  • The threads contain electrodes that would be tasked with picking up brain activity from the neurons and transmitting it to a device implanted behind the ear that interfaces with a computer. The Verge cites the paper's explanation that the system could feature "as many as 3,072 electrodes per array distributed across 96 threads."

  • The threads are thinner than human hair and flexible, which one scientist unaffiliated with the company describes as a technological advance. Still, he flags one potential weakness: The brain's saltiness can degrade plastics, so the threads' insulation will need to be able to withstand that for an extended time.
  • Bloomberg adds that the brain typically sees "probes as foreign invaders," and attempts to protect itself through the formation of scar tissue. This would "[muddy the wires'] ability to carry clear signals."
  • Motherboard reports Musk on Tuesday night shared his ultimate vision for Neuralink: that it will enable humans to essentially "merge" with artificial intelligence. "This is going to sound pretty weird," Musk said. "Ultimately we can achieve a symbiosis with artificial intelligence. This is not a mandatory thing, this is something you can choose to have if you want. This is going to be really important at a civilization-level scale. Even in a benign AI scenario, we will be left behind. With a high-bandwidth brain machine interface we can go along for the ride and have the option of merging with AI."
  • That's Musk's take. Here's Motherboard's: "It is unclear how much time or effort Musk is actually dedicating to Neuralink, how feasible the project is, whether anyone actually wants it, and what will happen to the people who can’t afford or don’t want to merge with AI. All of that said, brain-machine interfaces do show promise for treating people with brain injuries and diseases, and in that sense, this is a serious area of research that could potentially help many people."
  • And Musk's take relates to a much more distant future. USA Today reports the company says its initial findings show the technology could be useful in possibly treating things like Alzheimer's, spinal injuries, and blindness.
  • While Neuralink does have competition, Bloomberg notes a number of those competitors are using external devices to pick up brain activity from neurons. "The next level up is figuring out how to safely insert a device into the brain, where the neural signals are the strongest and the process can go much faster."
  • The Verge notes Musk laid bare the company's goal in laying out its progress on Tuesday night: recruitment.
(More Neuralink stories.)

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