What is going on
Tech billionaire Elon Musk announced this week that his company Neuralink had successfully implanted its brain-to-computer interface device in a human patient for the first time.
The device, a disk the size of a large coin with thousands of electrodes that can read brain activity, is designed to be implanted by a specialized robot through a small hole in the skull. Musk didn’t share any details about the procedure, other than to say so first tests show “promising detection of neuron spikes” and that the patient is “recovering well.”
As sci-fi as the concept may sound, the development of a brain-computer interface (BCI) has been a serious scientific pursuit for decades, and recent technological advances have led to some major breakthroughs in the real world in recent years. Brain implants have allowed people with severe disabilities to communicate and surf the Internet via a computer and have even helped a man drink a beer by controlling a robotic arm.
Neuralink is by no means the only company involved in BCIs, but it is unique when it comes to the scale of its ambitions. The other projects are largely focused on developing systems that can support people with specific needs, so they can communicate with and navigate the world around them. Neuralink’s current research appears to have similar goals, but Musk — who has a well-documented history of making big claims that don’t come true — has a much loftier vision of what the implants could do.
He has predicted a future where the average human can use brain implants to seamlessly connect their mind to the Internet at all times, make themselves smarter, achieve “symbiosis” with artificial intelligence, and one day even upload their consciousness into robots.
Neuralink implants have shown some efficacy in non-human experiments. But like so many of Musk’s business ventures, these wins have been accompanied by intense controversy. The company has faced accusations that Musk’s demands for quick results forced Neuralink scientists to rush their experiments, leading to unnecessary suffering and death among the pigs, sheep and monkeys used in the research. Neuralink was also reportedly fined by the federal government for violating regulations surrounding the transportation of hazardous materials.
Why there is discussion
Brain implant technology is still in its infancy, but recent developments have escalated the debate over what the devices could realistically do in the future – and whether Musk’s ambitious dream for the future is something we should even want.
Most brain researchers say there are good reasons to hope that BCIs could prove revolutionary for people with severely disabling physical and mental conditions. But they also warn that big questions still need to be answered before that’s possible beyond small scientific studies — including uncertainty about how long the devices will last, practical challenges that could limit the amount of data they can transfer, and safety concerns of the implant surgery.
Unsurprisingly, skepticism is much stronger when it comes to Musk’s grand ideas about what brain implants will one day allow us to do, but there are also many experts who argue that the worst-case scenario is one in which all of his visions become reality.
While the possibility of powerful computers connected to our brains is certainly exciting to some, polls show that most Americans are against the idea. Bioethicists worry that brain implants would give for-profit companies access to our innermost thoughts, make us vulnerable to mental hackers, increase inequality and make it impossible to ever disconnect from the online world.
At this time, there are very few details about where Neuralink’s BCI trial will go, including how many people will receive implants and what specific measures will be used to determine if the trial is a success. According to the company, the investigation is expected to take six years.
The potential for people with severe disabilities is very real
“This technology, and others like it, could have broad applications for people with disabilities and could also impact able-bodied people. While it may not be the holy grail for people who are paralyzed, it certainly offers hope for people with severe disabilities.” – Mill Etienne, Forbes
There’s no way to know what’s really possible until we try
“The nature of science is: you never know what’s around the corner. … These are scientific questions [for which] I have no idea what the answer will be until we do the experiments. – John Donoghue, neural engineering researcher at Brown University, to Scientific American
Musk’s fantastic thinking provides a roadmap for real, world-changing breakthroughs
“Musk is known for setting bizarre goals: he wants his rocket company SpaceX to send people to Mars. The idea of turning people into cyborgs could be just as ambitious. Even if he falls short, much can be accomplished along the way.” – Rolfe Winkler and Jo Craven McGinty, Wall Street Journal
We shouldn’t let fear of a future that will never happen get in the way of progress on things that can
“The neuromodulatory baby should not be thrown into the futuristic bathwater of those who promise to merge our minds with computers.” —Arthur Caplan, Michael Pourfar and Alon Y. Mogilner, Boston Globe
Our brains should not be constantly connected to the internet
“Sounds great, as long as the device doesn’t plug people’s brains into the time-consuming matrix of distractions we call the Internet. Rather than improving our lives, that may prove to be a step too far in being ‘connected’.” – Parmy Olson, Bloomberg
Brain chips would turn our private thoughts into a commodity to be mined and sold by Big Tech
“The brain is not just an organ of the body; it is the organ that produces the human spirit. This should be the sanctuary of our identity. You have to protect that, you can’t just go in and start banking and selling brain data.” — Rafael Yuste, neuroscientist at Columbia University, to Nature
Implants can create a whole new class of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’
“A society in which some people are cognitively enhanced and others are not could create a class divide like never before.” – Allan McCay, technology and ethics researcher, to Washington Post
We must protect our mental privacy at all costs
“Our brains are the last frontier of privacy. They are the seat of our personal identity and our most intimate thoughts. If we can’t control those precious three pounds of slime in our skulls, what can?” – Sigal Samuel, Vox