Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Neuralink wants to wire your brain to the internet – what could possibly go wrong?

The next step in human evolution. Credit: Shutterstock

Neuralink – which is "developing ultra high bandwidth brain-machine interfaces to connect humans and computers" – is probably a bad idea. If you understand the science behind it, and that's what you wanted to hear, you can stop reading.
But this is an absurdly simple narrative to spin about Neuralink and an unhelpful attitude to have when it comes to understanding the role of technology in the world around us, and what we might do about it. It's easy to be cynical about everything Silicon Valley does, but sometimes it comes up with something so compelling, fascinating and confounding it cannot be dismissed; or embraced uncritically.
Putting aside the hyperbole and hand-wringing that usually follows announcements like this, Neuralink is a massive idea. It may fundamentally alter how we conceive of what it means to be human and how we communicate and interact with our fellow humans (and nonhumans). It might even represent the next step in human evolution.
Neurawhat?
But what exactly is Neuralink? If you have time to read a brilliant 36,400-word explainer by genius Tim Urban, then you can do so here. If you don't, Davide Valeriani has done an excellent summary right here on The Conversation. However, to borrow a few of Urban's words, NeuraLink is a "wizard hat for your brain".

Essentially, Neuralink is a company purchased by Elon Musk, the visionary-in-chief behind Tesla, Space X and Hyperloop. But it's the company's product that really matters. Neuralink is developing a "whole brain interface", essentially a network of tiny electrodes linked to your brain that the company envisions will allow us to communicate wirelessly with the world. It would enable us to share our thoughts, fears, hopes and anxieties without demeaning ourselves with written or spoken language.

 However, unlike Tesla and Space X, Neuralink operates in a field where there aren't any other major players – for now, at least. But Musk has now fired the starting gun for competitors and, as Urban observes, "an eventual neuro-revolution would disrupt almost every industry".

 But this is an absurdly simple narrative to spin about Neuralink and an unhelpful attitude to have when it comes to understanding the role of technology in the world around us, and what we might do about it. It's easy to be cynical about everything Silicon Valley does, but sometimes it comes up with something so compelling, fascinating and confounding it cannot be dismissed; or embraced uncritically.

More criticism of Neuralink

Antonio Relagado, senior editor for biomedicine for MIT Technology Review, isn’t too impressed with Elon Musk’s claims for Neuralink. In particular, he explains that the 8-10 year time line for the first available implants is absurd and impossible.
Let’s deal with Musk’s time line first. A brain implant is a medical device that requires neurosurgery. Proving that it works requires a stepwise series of experiments that each takes years, starting in rats or monkeys.
Here’s a time line from the real world: a company called NeuroPace was started in 1997 to develop an implant that controls epileptic seizures. It actually senses a seizure coming and zaps your brain to stop it. The device got approved in 2013—16 years later. And that was for a very serious medical condition in which brain surgery is common.
Putting an implant in healthy people? That would require extraordinary evidence of safety. And that’s hard to picture, because as soon as you open someone’s head you put that person’s life at risk. We at MIT Technology Review know of only one case of a healthy person getting a brain implant: a crazy stunt undertaken in Central America by a scientist trying to do research on himself. It caused life-threatening complications.
Musk doesn’t seem to be considering the ethical problems at all. It’s cool tech, but I wouldn’t let anyone stick wires in my brain unless it was to treat a serious medical problem with tested procedures.
So it’s not crazy to believe there could be some very interesting brain-computer interfaces in the future. But that future is not as close at hand as Musk would have you believe. One reason is that opening a person’s skull is not a trivial procedure. Another is that technology for safely recording from more than a hundred neurons at once—neural dust, neural lace, optical arrays that thread through your blood vessels—remains mostly at the blueprint stage.
So what facts am I missing? What makes it even remotely okay that Musk and Facebook are promising the public telepathy within a few short years?
We criticize religions for making false promises without evidence; we imprison people for bilking people out of money on false pretenses; so yes, I agree, why do we give billionaire industrialists a pass when they make secular claims that don’t stand a chance in hell of coming true, and when they do it on behalf of profit-making companies?
  


Neuralink wants to wire your brain to the internet – what could possibly go wrong?
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