Controlling Robots with Neuralink

Elon Musk is most well known for his work with both Tesla and SpaceX. Most well-known is Tesla, an electric car company that currently sells more electric cars than the other top ten cars combined. Next is SpaceX, which developed a reusable rocket that significantly cuts down on space exploration costs, and has the ultimate goal of colonizing Mars. Musk even combined both endeavors when he sent a Tesla Roadster into orbit in 2018.  While there is constantly a flux of news about these ventures, more news has been revealed about Musk’s latest company, Neuralink.

Neuralink History and Recent Updates

Neuralink was started in 2016, and is headquartered in San Francisco. The company has hired neuroscientists and has received quite a bit of funding ($158 million) through its short life. As of this July, the company has ninety employees. Musk has stated that the end goal of Neuralink is to “achieve a symbiosis with artificial intelligence.” In the near term, the company aims to treat brain ailments such as paralysis, Alzheimer’s, and dementia.

On July 16th, Musk made a couple of announcements related to Neuralink and what the company has been up to. The company is making a computer chip that can be inserted into the brain, connected by thin wires with electrodes. A wireless receiver, outside of the skull, would then transmit the signals it receives from the brain to a computer. It appears that the company has already performed a number of tests in rats with the device and has allowed a monkey to control a computer. Are we on the verge of being able to wirelessly control robotic limbs akin to Luke Skywalker?

A picture from Neuralink’s scientific paper of the device implanted in a rat.

Details of the Tech

Conceptually this has been something scientists have been trying to execute. Like the above Star Wars example, robotic limbs have been a common example throughout sci-fi fiction of this type of technology. There are a number of companies and universities attempting to do the same thing as Neuralink, so what gives it an advantage in this field? This past week they claim they have improved upon the slim wires mentioned earlier to prevent damage to the brain and interface between computers with high data transfer. These threads are thinner in diameter than a human hair.

The wires, or threads, are inserted into the brain by a surgical robot that puts them into the necessary brain locations through tiny holes in the skull. This robot was developed by Neuralink for the specific purpose of installing these thin, flexible threads. The surgical robot has a vision system that allows it to prevent damage to the brain via avoiding blood vessels. The brains neurons will fire and send signals through the electrodes to a computer with a processor and wireless receiver that goes behind the ear.

The company is hoping to have installed the Neuralink technology in a human by the end of 2020. This though requires a whole load of work with the FDA, which has not yet started. The approval of the FDA will be required before starting any tests in humans. The hope with this technology is to make it as non-invasive as laser eye surgery in the future, but will not be what the technology is when first being implemented.

The Future of Neuralink

Musk is quite the visionary and futurologist. He has an electric car company, space company, tunnel drilling company, amongst many others. All of these companies help solve large problems such as pollution and travel, but Musk is now targeting a different type of problem with Neuralink. The company is hoping to interface the human brain directly with computers which is straight out of science fiction. The timing for this seems aggressive, but that is like many of Musk’s ventures. Even though Musk has a knack for over-promising in terms of timing, I wouldn’t bet against him with his track record of previous aspirations realizing success. 

If you would like to dive into this subject, watch the below video or read the scientific paper from Neuralink’s website. Warning for time, the video is about 1 hour and 45 minutes long.

https://youtu.be/r-vbh3t7WVI

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