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What Is Neuralink?

Elon Musk’s brain-computer interface company wants to hack the human mind.

Tesla and Neuralink founder Elon Musk speaks at a forum on the internet in San Francisco on November 7, 2008. (Image Credit: JD Lasica/Flickr)
Tesla and Neuralink founder Elon Musk speaks at a forum on the internet in San Francisco on November 7, 2008. (Image Credit: JD Lasica/Flickr)

Neuralink, a brain-computer interface firm owned by billionaire Elon Musk, revealed on Tuesday ambitions to safely plant ultra-thin wires into the human brain that will eventually be capable of remotely controlling devices like computers. The company says it will initially attempt to cure a variety of brain disorders.

Neuralink outlined its plans on at a public event last night in San Francisco that was also live-streamed. The event marked the first time Neuralink has publicly acknowledged that it is working on a brain-computer interface since being founded back in 2017. Musk and his team, however, cautioned that the technology is still under development and Neuralink is still at least a year away from clinical trials on humans.

Since its launch, Neuralink has been secretive about future plans. Over the past two years, apart from a few statements by Musk, the company has kept a low profile and avoided the media. Last week, this strategy appeared to change when the company posted on the social networking website Twitter that it would soon be holding an event in San Francisco.

Here’s What We Know so Far About Brain-Computer Interface Startup Neuralink

Billionaire Musk founded the startup in 2017 with the goal of linking the human brain to digital devices so as to enhance the abilities of both humans and computers. In order to accomplish this, Musk interviewed close to a thousand people and eventually assembled a team of almost 100 that consisted of neurosurgeons, engineers, electronic chip makers, and others.

Neuralink has managed to attract investments worth $150 million in the past twenty-four months, including at least $100 million from owner Musk, reports Bloomberg.

Neuralink corroborated earlier reports and revealed that it was concentrating on developing a product that would have medical uses, such as enabling amputees to regain movement and improving hearing or vision defects. At a later stage, it would embark on a project to make a brain-computer interface for people with no disabilities.

What Is a Brain-Computer Interface?

A brain-computer interface is a tool that will let humans control other devices with their minds by the help of a chip planted into their brain. The chip will monitor the neural signals passed through the brain and transmit them to a nearby device that will respond accordingly.

Brain-computer interfaces use thousands of very small wires that steer clear of sensitive blood vessels and are designed to embed themselves into the brain for a very long period of time. Not only can these wires read brain activity, but they may also be able to stimulate it in the future.

Musk is not the only technology guru who is investing in a brain-computer interface. Other companies like CTRL Labs, Facebook, and Kernel are also working on similar projects.

Kernel, for example, is developing a non-invasive Mind-Body Machine Interface that reads and writes brain signals deciphered from outside the skull. CTRL Labs is also producing a non-invasive kit designed to read signals from the nervous system.

Here’s What Sets Neuralink Apart From Competition in the Emerging Brain-Computer Interface Industry

Neuralink has already conducted successful tests of the new technology on rats.

The success marks several significant leaps made in neurotechnology by the Musk-owned startup. Neuralink has made use of ultra-thin wires, sized between 4 to 6 nanometers, that are thinner than a human hair and less likely to damage existing brain tissue. The wires, or threads as they are being called, will be implanted using a highly precise Neuralink robotic machine.

According to the information shared by Neuralink employees on Tuesday, the machine will drill precise holes into the skull of subjects, place the threads into the brain accurately, and close up the hole. Neuralink says that it eventually plans on making the procedure effectively painless by using lasers to drill the holes. It also wants to make implanted devices risk-free and long-lasting.

The new threads developed by Neuralink also allow for more information to be relayed through them than any other technique available on the market today, contends the medical research firm. Neuralink demonstrated this by showing the results of tests on rats that indicated that the threads transmitted 15 times more data than the next most advanced alternative.

The new methods will be employed to cure amputees, reverse vision impairment, hearing disorders, speech impediments, spinal malfunction, and a number of other conditions caused by the brain, Neuralink owner Musk announced during yesterday’s presentation. The company hopes to start trials on humans by the second quarter of next year.

Musk also said that Neuralink eventually plans on using the new techniques to achieve a symbiosis with artificial intelligence. Loosely translated, this means that Neuralink plans on transitioning to devices that can feed off both the human brain and digital computers, enhancing a person’s ability to make decisions.

Brain-Computer Interface Is a New Technology With a Bright Future

The potential commercial and societal impacts of the brain-computer interfaces could be huge. The first tests of similar technology on humans have already shown positive results. Brain computers developed by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, for example, have allowed paralyzed people to move robotic arms.

In the presentation on Tuesday, Neuralink employees claimed that brain-computer interfaces could one day allow people to draft text messages by thinking about what they want to type, move computer cursors with their mind, navigate the internet by willing where to click, download new languages into the brain, and even exchange thoughts with each other.

Neuralink still faces an uphill battle to commercially market the new technology. Hundreds of millions of dollars in research and development funds would be required to bring brain-computer interface technology to the consumer. Musk could use a model he has employed at previous business ventures, like SpaceX and Tesla, making use of the profits from a revolutionary first product to fund further research into the field to sustain the company.

Usman Kabir covers science, space, and technology for Globely News. As a kid, he would make models of the solar system and take part in water rocket competitions. His childhood obsession has led him to a degree in Space Science. Usman likes to spend his free time watching reruns of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Seinfeld."

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