PayPal founder Elon Musk wants to put a modem in your brain, potentially allowing you to control computers, drones, and prosthetic limbs with your thoughts.
He’s not alone. For years, university researchers and even the U.S. military’s own scientists have been tinkering with the same technology, aiming to improve the ways we interface with our devices and our own bodies.
Veterans in the field of brain-computer interface research, or BCI, said Musk’s leap into the nascent industry could be a helpful jolt to a little-known but promising tech.
But they also sounded a note of caution. Musk said Neuralink, his San Francisco-based BCI firm, will focus on developing implantable technology. In other words, the company would have to drill holes in your head to install the interface hardware. The first human trials would begin in 2020, Musk said.
Surgically implanted internal BCI devices are riskier than wearable external devices, researchers told The Daily Beast. Neuralink might be betting on the wrong hardware. And the company could struggle to meet its own ambitious deadline for trials. Especially once the Food and Drug Administration gets involved.
“The base technology is really not as futuristic as many people might think, but putting it all together is a huge challenge,” Jacob Robinson, a professor of bioengineering at Rice University, told The Daily Beast.
Musk, whose other companies include Tesla and SpaceX, announced Neuralink’s BCI project in a press conference last week. He said Neuralink’s robotic surgeon would drill tiny holes in the skulls of test subjects, thread wires into the wearers’ brains then patch the holes with computer chips that wirelessly would connect to a smartphone app.
Sensors in the wires would read electrical activity in the brain. The system would translate the neural activity into computer code that could allow a paralyzed person to effortlessly control a robotic limb or a drone enthusiast to steer a flying robot simply by thinking “up,” “down,” left” and “right.”
“This is going to sound pretty weird, but ultimately, we will achieve symbiosis with artificial intelligence,” Musk said in the press conference. Neuralink did not respond to an email seeking comment.
None of these ambitions strictly are new. They’re all built on the same concept as the medical electrocardiogram and electroencephalogram, techs respectively dating to the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
A cochlear implant for hearing-impairment in essence is a prototype form of BCI. That’s been around since the 1970s. In recent years, neural-bypass brain implants have helped thousands of paralyzed patients to reconnect their brains to their limbs.
Building on all this, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—the military’s fringe-science wing—in January 2016 announced its Neural Engineering System Design initiative. The NESD program “aims to develop an implantable neural interface able to provide unprecedented signal resolution and data-transfer bandwidth between the human brain and the digital world,” the agency stated.
A few months later DARPA researchers modified the neural implant in the skull of Nathan Copeland, a partially paralyzed volunteer test subject, and coaxed Copeland into steering a computer-simulated drone with his thoughts.
Around the same time, 16 people at the University of Florida under the supervision of computer scientist Juan Gilbert donned electroencephalogram headsets and used their brainwaves to steer drones along a 10-yard, indoor course.
More recently, DARPA awarded contracts to six teams of researchers under the auspices of the Next-Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology program. N3, as it’s known, is trying to develop “noninvasive or minutely invasive, high-resolution, bi-directional neural interfaces with the brain for use by able-bodied individuals,” Al Emondi, DARPA’s program manager for NESD, N3 and related efforts, told The Daily Beast.
By 2019 the BCI field was ready for a cash-rich company to jump in and being pushing the tech into the mainstream. “The time is ripe for visionary private companies, like Neuralink, to try to move these technologies out of our labs,” Andrew Hires, a University of Southern California neuroscientist, told The Daily Beast.
But there are reasons to be skeptical of Neuralink’s plan. For one, Musk’s company for all its high-tech pedigree still intends to drill holes in people’s heads. “It’s surgery, so there are inherent risks associated with that,” Gilbert explained.
For someone suffering from paralysis, surgery might be worth it, Gilbert added.
But if brain modems truly are to go mainstream, they need to be non-invasive, DARPA’s Emondi said.
The problem right now is that brainwave-sensors outside the skull are less sensitive than are ones inside the skull. “The surgical approach provides more accurate readings,” Gilbert said.
At present Neuralink probably is pursuing a commercial dead-end—an implanted brain-modem with an installation that likely isn’t worth the risk for most people.
But if the company sticks with the tech and doesn’t mind losing money on it for many years, it just might emerge as the market-leader in consumer brain-modems. Eventually. Maybe. And probably at great cost.
“I wouldn’t bet against them,” Hires said of Neuralink.
“I think they have a unique opportunity to succeed where others have struggled because they have deep pockets and don’t appear to be concerned about making a profit in the near term,” Rice University’s Robinson seconded. “Overall, I don’t see anything that makes this endeavor impossible and I’m pulling for their success.”