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In a groundbreaking announcement that seems torn from the pages of a sci-fi novel, Elon Musk has unveiled that Neuralink, his ambitious venture into neurotechnology, has successfully implanted a computer chip into a human brain. This chip, Musk asserts, will enable individuals to interact with their phones and computers through thought alone. While this development marks a significant leap forward in integrating technology with human biology, it simultaneously propels us into a complex ethical maze.
This revolutionary technology promises to usher in a new era of communication, health, and cognitive enhancement, potentially transforming the way we interact with the digital world and with each other. But will there be risks associated with this novel implant? Let’s dive into the current status of brain chip implants and analyze the possibilities and challenges that lie ahead.
Founded by Elon Musk in 2016 and based in Fremont, California, Neuralink is developing ultra-high bandwidth brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) to connect humans and computers.
What are BCIs?
According to the NCBI, “A brain-computer interface (BCI) is a computer-based system that acquires brain signals, analyzes them, and translates them into commands that are relayed to an output device to carry out a desired action.”
Neuralink received limited human testing approval and approval for human clinical trials from the FDA in July 2020 and May 2023 respectively.
Neuralink opened up its human trials for the first time in September 2023. They looked for individuals with spinal cord injuries or diseases to be part of the trials.
The primary goal of this invention is to enable individuals with paralysis to operate computers and mobile devices with their thoughts alone. However, the long term vision extends far beyond, aiming at synergy with artificial intelligence (AI), cognitive development or enhancement, and even the restoration of sensory and motor functions.
Elon Musk proudly announced on January 29, 2024 that Neuralink had successfully placed the first brain chip implant on a human, the previous day. “Initial results show promising neuron spike detection,” said Musk.
While flipping the pages of the past researches of Neuralink, we come to know that the smart chip brain implant was tested on monkeys and pigs. Neuralink claimed that there was no animal fatalities due to the research, there had been issues like seizures, paralysis and swelling in the brain in the monkeys as the result of the trials. However, Reuters reports that around 1500 animals, including monkeys, sheep, and goats died during the animal testing since 2018.
Neuralink produced various samples of successful animal trials, especially a video from 2021 where a macaque with a brain implant was seen playing a video game.
If the trial implant becomes successful, Neuralink will launch its first product named “Telepathy,” tweeted Musk.
However, there was no other details apart from Musk’s tweet on the beginning of chip implant in brain. The study brochure from Neuralink calls for people who are willing to undergo the clinical trials for 6 years and jots down the eligibility criteria for the enrollment.
We are looking for individuals who:
- Have quadriplegia (limited function in all 4 limbs) due to spinal cord injury or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and are at least 1-year post-injury (without improvement)
- Are at least 22 years old
- Have a consistent and reliable caregiver
How does the brain chip implant work?
The human brain chip implant was of the size of a coin, which was surgically implanted in the brain. In Elon Musk’s words, “… it’s like a Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires that go to your brain.”
The implant is covered by a biocompatible enclosure and powered by a small battery that can be charged wirelessly from outside. The chips and electronics in the implant are used to process the signal from the neurons and transmit to the application.
Where in the brain would a chip be implanted? Neuralink’s technology involves inserting flexible threads, thinner than a human hair, into the cerebral cortex of the brain. These threads are equipped with electrodes that detect neural activity.
A surgical R1 Robot performs the delicate procedure, aiming to minimize damage and improve precision. The data collected by these threads is transmitted wirelessly to an app developed by Neuralink, which decodes recorded brain signals and allow the individual to control a computer with their thoughts. The real-time monitoring and interaction with the brain’s neural circuits will be possible with this.
Neuralink claims, “Our brain-computer interface is fully implantable, cosmetically invisible, and designed to let you control a computer or mobile device anywhere you go.” “The N1 Implant records neural activity through 1024 electrodes distributed across 64 threads, each thinner than a human hair.”
Implanting the chip in human brain would help people with neurological disorders to control the motor functions. Paralytic people would be given the first priority, the company stated.
The concept of connecting thoughts through Neuralink involves decoding the complex neural signals that represent thought processes and translating them into actionable commands or digital communication. While the idea might sound like science fiction, Neuralink has made significant strides towards making it a reality.
Initial experiments have demonstrated the potential of Neuralink’s technology. In one notable demonstration, a monkey was able to play a video game using only its thoughts, thanks to a Neuralink brain chip implant. This showcases the capability to decode neural signals and translate them into digital commands.
However, connecting thoughts is not just about translating brain activity into actions on a computer screen; it’s about understanding the intricate language of the brain. This includes deciphering intentions, emotions, and complex ideas, which remains a formidable challenge. The current state of technology allows for the interpretation of simple commands and intentions, but fully connecting thoughts, in the sense of complex idea exchange or telepathy-like communication, is still in the realm of future possibilities.
Synchron’s Brain Implant
Neuralink’s competitor, Synchron had already come up with a 1.5 inch long implant made up of wires and electrodes. On July 6 2022, they implanted their device on a New York based patient with ALS or amyotrophic lateral scelorosis. It was placed into the brain blood vessel. With this implant, the individual could move, speak, surf the net, text or email just by his thinking. His thoughts would be translated into commands and sent to the computer.
In September 2023, Synchron announced that six patients have received their brain-computer interface to help people with paralysis.
Results of the study are expected to be made available late next year, after 12 months of post-implant follow-up are completed, Synchron spokesperson Kimberly Ha said in an email.
Synchron had implanted the device earlier in 4 Australian patients, with no side effects reported so far.
Current Limitations of Brain Chip Technology
Christopher Bettinger, a material scientist and biomedical engineer of Carnegie University told, the Verge that the current brain implant materials like silicon had many limitations in providing prolonged connections with the tissues in the brain as it is somewhat rigid. It will be like sticking a plastic into the jell-like brain tissues. He added that the failure of such materials was not going to cause any chronic illnesses or cause any stroke but the lifetime of the implant was a question mark. Silicone implants might last for around 5 years. After that parts of that would start eroding, making the implant a failure in years.
Studies are ongoing to identify feasible materials to make micro brain implants. Let’s hope that the human kind’s hardships and thirst for innovation generate safe and compatible materials for such ground breaking developments that could resolve woes of the ailing.
Ethical Considerations and Views of Americans on the New Brain Implant
As with any technology that interacts directly with the human brain, Neuralink’s developments come with significant ethical and safety considerations. Issues such as privacy, consent, and the long-term effects of having foreign objects implanted in the brain are of paramount concern. There’s also the question of accessibility and inequality; such advanced technologies could widen the gap between different socio-economic groups.
Researches done among the Americans on the use of Brain chip implants revealed that Americans have mixed opinions. Around 63% of American adults think that the use of brain chip implants is actually like “…meddling with nature and crosses a line we should not cross,” says a research done by the Pew Research Center.
In a research, approximately 57% of Americans say that the wide use of brain chip implants to improve cognitive function could increase the higher and lower income groups. 52% feel that widespread use of brain chip implants may help the hackers gaining access to people information.
However, 77% support the use of brain chip implants to help the paralyzed and just 8% oppose the use. A 64% even support the used if these implants to treat age-related mental ability decline.
These myriad reactions show the ethical concerns Americans have on the use of brain chip implants. With more assurance of safety and efficacy of such implants, the opinions may change in future.
In conclusion, the journey towards fully connecting thoughts through Neuralink is still in its early stages. The potential applications of such technology are vast, from transforming how we treat neurological disorders to redefining human-computer interaction. However, it’s essential to proceed with caution, ensuring that ethical considerations and safety are at the forefront of this technological evolution. Let’s hope Elon Musk brain implant chip could revive the dreams of the people for whom a mere movement of a limb itself is a dream.