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 through a small hole in the skull by a specialized robot. Musk didn’t share any details on the procedure, other than to say that initial tests show “promising neuron spike detection” and that the patient is “recovering well.”
As sci-fi as the concept may sound, development of a brain-computer interface (BCI) has been a serious scientific pursuit for decades, and recent technological advances have led to some major real-world breakthroughs over the past several years. Brain implants have allowed people with severe disabilities to communicate through a computer and surf the internet and even helped one man sip a beer by controlling a robotic arm.
Neuralink is far from the only company working on 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 interact with and navigate through the world around them. Neuralink’s current research appears to have similar goals, but Musk — who has a well-documented history of making grand claims that don’t come true — has a much loftier vision for what the implants could be able to do.
He has predicted a future in which the average person can use brain implants to seamlessly connect their minds to the internet at all times, make themselves smarter, achieve “symbiosis” with artificial intelligence and even one day upload their consciousness into robots.
Neuralink implants have shown some efficacy in nonhuman experiments. But, like so many of Musk’s business ventures, those gains have been accompanied by intense controversy. The company has faced allegations 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 its research. Neuralink was also reportedly fined by the federal government for violating rules surrounding the transport of hazardous materials.
Why there’s debate
Brain implant technology is still very much in its infancy, but recent advances have escalated the debate over what the devices could realistically do down the road — and whether Musk’s ambitious dream for the future is something we would even want.
Most brain researchers say there’s good reason to hope that BCIs could prove to be revolutionary for people with severely limiting physical and mental conditions. But they also caution that there are still major questions that need to be answered before that can be possible outside of small scientific studies — including uncertainty about how long the devices might last, practical challenges that could limit the how much data they can transfer, and concerns about the safety of the implantation surgery.
Skepticism is unsurprisingly much stronger when it comes to Musk’s grander ideas for 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 where all of his visions come true.
While the possibility of high-powered computers connected to our brains is certainly exciting for 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, leave us vulnerable to mental hackers, make inequality worse and make it impossible to ever disconnect from the online world.
At the moment, there are very few details about where Neuralink’s BCI research goes from here, including how many people will receive implants and what specific measures will be used to determine whether the trial is a success. According to the company, the study is expected to take six years to complete.
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 impact able-bodied people as well. While it may not be the holy grail for people who are quadriplegic, it most certainly provides hope for people with severe disabilities.” — Mill Etienne, Forbes
There’s no way to know what’s actually possible until we try
“The nature of science is: you never know what’s around the corner. ... They’re 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 fantastical thinking sets a road map for actual world-changing breakthroughs
“Musk is known for setting outlandish goals: He wants his rocket company SpaceX to send humans to Mars. The idea of turning humans into cyborgs might be just as ambitious. Even if he falls short, a lot could be accomplished on the way.” — Rolfe Winkler and Jo Craven McGinty, Wall Street Journal
We shouldn’t let fears of a future that will never happen hold back progress on things that actually can
“The neuromodulatory baby ought not be thrown out in the futuristic bathwater of those promising the melding of our minds with computers.” — Arthur Caplan, Michael Pourfar and Alon Y. Mogilner, Boston Globe
Our brains should not be perpetually connected to the internet
“Sounds great, so long as the device doesn’t plug people’s brains into the time-sucking matrix of distraction that we call the internet. Far from enhancing our lives, that could prove a step too far in being ‘connected.’” — Parmy Olson, Bloomberg
Brain chips would turn our private thoughts into a commodity for Big Tech to mine and sell
“The brain is not just another organ of the body; it is the organ that generates the human mind. This should be the sanctuary of our identity. You need to shield that, you cannot just go in and start banking and selling brain data.” — Rafael Yuste, neuroscientist at Columbia University, to Nature
Implants could create a whole new class of haves and have-nots
“A society where some people are cognitively enhanced and others aren’t could create a class divide like nothing ever.” — Allan McCay, technology and ethics researcher, to Washington Post
We need to protect our mental privacy at all costs
“Our brains are the final privacy frontier. They’re the seat of our personal identity and our most intimate thoughts. If those precious three pounds of goo in our craniums aren’t ours to control, what is?” — Sigal Samuel, Vox