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A Brain New World—The Advent of Brain-Computer Interfaces

In 1924, the discovery of electroencephalography (EEG) initiated a radical domino effect that would lead to the birth of the brain-computer interfaces (BCIs)—a bidirectional bridge that linked the brain to an external device. Several technology companies across the globe have tirelessly worked to connect man and machine, applying fascinating scientific theories to experiments. With advancing technology around every corner, Elon Musk’s new venture, Neuralink, leaps the rest and uses impressive engineering to further improve on existing technology, making a huge impact in the world of BCIs.

BCIs in science fiction. [Image credits: penntoday.upenn.edu]

A Brief Timeline

It might be surprising to learn that research on brain-computer interfaces dates all the way back to the ’70s when the efforts made by the University of California (UCLA) allowed subjects to move a graphical object on a computer screen using a non-invasive EEG. This experiment subsequently led to the release of the first paper ever on BCIs. In 1997, esteemed Dr Richard Norman developed an electrode array with over 250 electrodes that could monitor neural activity. Less than a year after this, the first implant was placed in the brain of a paralyzed patient, marking an important milestone in neuroscience. Over a decade later, many companies such as BrainCo and Emotiv were founded to understand the human brain through body-machine interface (BMI) technology. This applied science has identified several useful applications in real-world situations such as assisting the visually/hearing impaired and getting injured athletes back up on their feetRecently in 2016, a 58-year-old woman, rendered paralyzed by Lou Gehrig’s disease had successfully restored some of her motor functions using brain implants.

Neuralink was officially established in 2016 with the long-term goal of achieving a symbiosis between humans and technology. In an ostentatious public unveiling in 2019, Elon Musk, co-founder of the company, described the device as “a Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires”. It was not until July 2020 that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) officially gave the nod for animal testing using a preliminary prototype. A month later, the widely-anticipated trial was conducted on a pig, wherein it was shown that the pig could function normally after the implant was installed and removed. Such advances are expected to help communication venture into a completely surreal dimension, where interaction can take place via thoughts. While BMI technology until now focused on just one particular aspect—transferring some of the brain’s prowess to AI—Neuralink is trying to achieve a viable model where AI itself can transfer its overarching abilities to the brain. 

A public demonstration of the Neuralink device on a healthy pig. [Image Credits: Nerdist]

Chipping Into the Brain—How Exactly Does It Work?

The human brain is comprised of approximately 86 billion neurons which form a holistic network that achieves mutual interactions. They communicate with each other through chemicals called neurotransmitters. Every reaction generates a small electromagnetic field that can be harnessed by electrodes placed nearby, and subsequently be translated by a suitable computer algorithm. An implementation such as this would, needless to say, require advanced surgical skills beyond the capabilities of human hands. Hence, Neuralink has proposed a highly sophisticated robot that can carry out the complex surgical process. Around ten thousand electrodes would be inserted into the cerebrum with the help of hair-thin needles under a microscope. The process is estimated to take just a couple of hours, under partial anaesthesia.

The device will allow the wearer to communicate with smart devices, enabling them to send messages, watch videos, listen to their favourite music, and even make calls without phones, by simply using their minds. A more munificent approach to this application would be the improvement of healthcare services.

Attachment of an N1 implant of an estimated Neuralink prototype. [Image credits: Cnet]

Although a major endeavour in BCIs, Neuralink isn’t the only company to have made revolutionary progress. Other ground-breaking inventions such as neuroprosthetics, specialized pacemakers, and many others have paved a solid foundation for it. These utilize cutting-edge technology to optimize the functions of the neural networks that are beyond the scope of a human. In essence, different machines are used to execute simple tasks that the body is unable to perform. This is a blessing in disguise for many physically impaired lives. Still, a distinctly overt disguise nonetheless—when robotic limbs stand in lieu of flesh and bones, it attracts curious eyes and pitiful smiles. Some of these devices prove inconvenient for everyday applications, requiring a sizeable machine to be lugged around all day. Also, the mechanisms of many BMIs are programmed to accommodate only a predefined set of functions. They have finite flexibility in other domains of the body, as seen in cochlear and retinal implants. Those experiencing ineffectual auditory and visual sensations see a ray of hope, but at twice the cost.

This is where Neuralink steps in as a more feasible alternative. Through a microscopic chipset lodged inside the brain, the need for large, complex structures is eliminated. This also allows people to move about without overbearing machinery, offering resistance. It promises to overcome the limited body-to-machine interaction, with one tiny device ensuring holistic resolution of the entire brain.

With artificial intelligence of such caliber, humans may likely be able to tap into the full potential of their abilities, such as improved metabolism, hearing sounds outside the frequency range, and even seeing through walls—the possibilities are endless! Neuralink will eventually explore more user cases when the technology is deployed, but the primary focus will be to make sure the technology interacts seamlessly with devices.

Fatal Flaws

Despite its benefits, AI has always been surrounded by conspiracies, which also occupies a large chunk of fiction. Sci-fi storylines revolving around AI usually start as an optimistic venture which turns into macabre robotic colonization. Apart from this, the secondary plots see a gradual decrease in human labour—phasing out their creative thinking, the extreme splurge in resources, and the invasion of privacy. Even if the world hasn’t witnessed a computer-related apocalypse yet, AI has surely pulled off the other onerous feats. With AI—still a nascent field—as their parent discipline, companies like Neuralink that hope to release such products in the market are exposed to such concerns.

Along with the aforementioned issues, the human brain’s intimate involvement further complicates its ordeal.  Having the efficiency of a computer stacked into the brain seems like an awesome tool to have, but computers can easily encounter the risks of being hacked. Although a computer once hacked can be salvaged, can the same be said about the brain? It is imperative to ensure strong encryption to avoid any breach of security and safeguard people’s privacy and safety.

The usage of BCI might lead to adverse effects on the human brain. [Image credits: theatlantic.com]

Another glaring issue is malpractices by tyrannical governments to secure their obtuse agendas. It could further escalate political tensions between countries if the United States does not contrive an appropriate distribution model. In the distant future, if governments procure access to this technology easily, this can be used as a potent weapon for warfare. Tying into the brain hacking concern, this can be used to access and control minds to trigger a war between conflicting groups.

There are also concerns that it will drive the distance between the higher and lower strata of society further apart. Once this becomes commercially available, the privileged will have easy access to a plethora of knowledge. This may put them at a higher ground in the academic or industrial sectors compared to those who cannot avail of its benefits.  It may very well lead to volatile socio-economic conditions. On the off chance that it becomes accessible to all people alike, it may become infamous for being an indispensable tool. Like phones, extreme dependency on it can render unhealthy reliability which may be misused by some.

Neuralink is a stepping stone towards an unfathomable future featuring AI and BCIs at its absolute best. Moreover, it opens doors of opportunities in the field of BCIs for generations to come. Despite its limitations, BCIs promise a future of hope to all those people suffering from physical and mental aberrations. If maximum precautions are administered to its engineering, the risks associated with it can be further reduced. A profound interaction with this technology can transcend humanity beyond surreal boundaries, thrusting it into uncharted territory. A century ago, such inventions would never have been thought of as pragmatic. Now, with such inspiring insights into the world of BCIs, the sky is the limit to the endless possibilities the future has in store for us.

Featured Image Credits: Engadget