While computers continue to decrease in size and increase in power we, the users, do not. Even the interface between people and machines has changed surprisingly little since the first computers. The first machines had blinking lights, keyboard inputs, and typewriter outputs. Modern computers have, you guessed it, blinking lights (a couple of million), keyboard inputs, and printer outputs.
While there may have been advances in GUIs and biometrics (such as fingerprint scanners), the interface between man and machine is still limiting.
Wouldn't it be great if you could simply think what you wanted to do with a computer and it would do exactly what you need? Maybe you would think to yourself “I must remember someone's birthday” the computer could create a reminder for you. The computer, instead of being a tool, becomes a part of you and makes life considerably easier.
This lack of advanced interface with modern machines is something that several start-up companies are attempting to address, including Bryan Johnson and Elon Musk.
An Old Idea with New Goals
Firstly, let's go over the fact that the concept of neural links, where the human brain and a digital system are connected to each other, are at least half a century old. (There's even a Star Trek episode about it.) Some people will read the news and assume that Elon Musk came up with this idea to begin with. This is just as incorrect as assuming that Musk's responsible for the concepts of electric cars, solar tiles, or rockets.
Linking the brain to digital devices has been the stuff of science fiction for many years. The closest people have gotten to such a connection usually involve a one-way connection where brain waves are converted into actions by a computer. For example, researchers are working on allowing brainwaves to control prosthetics and CSAIL has been working on brain-controlled robots.
But sending information into the brain, and in a form that the brain understands, is a whole new challenge.
Elon Musk's Neuralink
Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, has started a small company called Neuralink Corp in the hope of developing such a connection. Neuralink has hired experts in the fields of nanotechnology and neuroscience with the goal of using mesh electronics, injected into the bloodstream, to attach themselves to the brain.
This methodology has a major advantage over implanted devices as it minimizes the risk of complications and infections that are a concern with surgery. The implanted devices then allow for a hybrid digital layer which would sit in between the brain, itself, and an AI layer that could map neural impulses to specific outputs using deep learning.
Recent research is giving this concept credence. A joint team from Harvard University and the National Center for Nanoscience and Technology in Beijing created a mesh that could be injected directly into the brain of a mouse. The mesh contains transistors and various other components which are then connected to electrodes for sending the data to a computer. The mesh they implanted successfully monitored brain signals of the mouse on 16 different channels, showing that the technology for connecting the neurons from a human brain to a computer could become a reality.
The mesh that is injected via a very small needle. Image credit: Lieber Research Group, Harvard University
However, the mesh was injected directly into the brain of the mouse whereas Elon Musk’s proposal involves the injection of the mesh into an artery, which would require the use of nanorobots—a technology that does not currently exist.
Bryan Johnson's Kernel
Bryan Johnson, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, has recently sold a start-up company for $800 million and is taking $100 million of his own money to fund a neural link company called Kernel.
Currently, Kernel is looking at a device designed by Theodore Berger which is implanted in the skull and then connected to electrodes implanted into the brain. The idea behind the chip is to improve the connection between damaged neurons in the brain by sending impulses sent by a healthy brain.
In testing on monkies, the chip recorded the impulses during normal decision-making and isolated specific neuron patterns when the subject solved a problem correctly. The subject was then shown similar problems but with the chip injecting the “correct neural patterns”. This resulted in a 10% increase in the choices designated to be correct.
The scientists then intentionally mentally impaired the subject using cocaine and presented the subject with more problems. Despite the impairment (which resulted in a 20% decrease in correct answers), the firing of the neural patterns by the chip resulted in slightly better results than those achieved under normal conditions.
The hope is that this device could help people with dementia and brain damage where “normal neural signals” can be injected under certain activities such as decision making and accessing memories.
The method that Bryan Johnson hopes to use would be less invasive than an implanted mesh as it would sit above the skull, requiring minimal surgery.
Implications of a Brain-Computer Link
A brain-computer bridge could enable people to interact with computers in ways that we can't yet truly comprehend. For all of the good that brain-computer links could do, such technology could also be potentially dangerous.
A connection between the brain and a computer implies a two-way connection whereby data can be transferred back and forth. While sending information to a computer may be harmless, allowing computers to send signals directly into brains may pose a serious threat.
Depending on how advanced an implantation is and how complex the information sent by the computer is (i.e., transmission of visual data), there's a plethora of ways these links could be abused. For starters, a computer could be made to send information that may mentally disturb individuals. Imagine the recent wave of ransomeware but hijacking someone's brain rather than their laptop.
Ransomware on a brain bridge could have devastating results. Image courtesy of Motormille2 [CC BY-SA 4.0]
There are also many unanswered questions. If information can be downloaded into the brain, what else can be downloaded? Instructions? Body movements? The way we handle the transfer of information—and what information we transfer—would never be the same.
What else does a future with computer-brain links hold? Musk and Johnson seem determined to find out.