For thousands of years, we have been pushing the limits, watching the final frontier of our abilities move further and further. But as wise as we are today, we are still left looking towards the stars, curious about what lies ahead. And while our bodies may be earthbound, our minds have used these limitations as the very source of inspiration for some of the greatest discoveries in human history.
The dystopian world of William Gibson’s Neuromancer and the birth of the cyberpunk genre created visions of a reality where people were able to connect with machines, acquiring unprecedented abilities. With their brains plugged into their cars, they were better drivers, and when their minds entered cyberspace, they became better hackers. How much of that fiction is possible today?
The connection problem
Using our palms to communicate with software is an extremely inefficient process that does not facilitate optimal data transfer. Because there is only so much information we can convey to a machine with our hands, this is frequently referred to as a low bandwidth mode of communication. On the other hand, the human brain is at the center of cognition, and thus the perfect place to build a more effective link between humans and machines.
Many of our actions are limited by the speed at which our bodies can perform them. The idea behind Neuralink is to bypass these constraints with a brain-machine interface, freeing the mind from the limitations of the body and seeing us become more effective and more efficient versions of ourselves.
Consider the following analogy; when we need to stop our car abruptly, it takes a good second for the brain to communicate with the muscles and then step on the brake. When we drive 80 kilometers per hour, each second is equal to 20 meters of the distance covered, which can be the difference-maker in tight situations. Neuralink seeks to eliminate that additional second by enabling our minds to interact directly with the AI itself. In this case, the interface would not only cause a shift to the road safety paradigm, but the notion of autonomous driving systems would be completely revolutionized. And this is just the beginning.
A neurological leap
At Elon Musk’s discretion, and with the subsequent backing from private investors, Neuralink started as a project to help patients with neurological issues. Aimed particularly at those suffering from quadriplegia due to C1-C4 spinal cord injury, Neuralink would allow individuals to control smart devices with their minds. Parkinson’s disease, depression, epilepsy, and Alzheimer’s are also on the list of conditions that could be treated and possibly cured. Moreover, solutions to enhance the cognitive process are currently under development, which could exponentially improve our brain function.
To put things into perspective, picture web developers who aren’t restricted by code input, but instead directly connected to the computer itself. Imagine how communication would change, not just between us and a machine, but also amongst ourselves. A wireless connection between the mind of an individual and an external system, when fully developed, will have life-changing effects on our everyday functions. It will work both ways, naturally, not only sending our neural signals to the outside world but also receiving information from external sensors. Why bother learning a new language when you can download it directly to your brain?
Reaping the rewards
Being able to use cars or computers the way we use our hands now, as a part of our body, is something Neuralink claims to be within reach. So much so, that the company had already announced successful tests performed on mice, and expressed their will to move to the next phase of experiments on human subjects. However, an issue that will have to be addressed before this technology hits the global market is the security factor. Hacking a mind-machine interface would have far more dreadful consequences than breaching a computer firewall.
So far, Neuralink hasn’t been able to get US Food and Drink Administration’s approval to begin tests on humans. Once the aforementioned goal is achieved, the project will then have to repeat the same approval process within EU countries and other regions where Neuralink would be available.
The most controversial aspect of Neuralink is perhaps its close relation to artificial intelligence. It was Elon himself who warned of the potential threat AI might pose to humanity. That being said, he doesn’t think that a scenario from the Terminator movies is likely to occur, but fears we could all become “house cats” to artificial intelligence due to the disparity in our cognitive functions. To keep up with future advancements in AI, human brains could be updated with some form of additional intelligence. Under such conditions, the symbiosis achieved via the brain-machine interface would be a “neural lace,” a leash for the digital or quantum brain.