What is Neuralink? Neuralink explained: chip, experiments in pig Gertrude and monkey. How Neuralink works & vision of Elon Musk (cyborgs).

Elon Musk Neuralink

Halfway 2017 Elon Musk came in the news with Neuralink for the first time. The company wants to expand the human intelligence with artificial intelligence by implanting a chip in the head.

More specific: this company wants to be able to intervene on the neurons in the brain.

I have structured this article as follows:

And: more information about how to hire me, a list of resources, and leave a comment if you have a question or remark!


My video about Neuralink

How does Neuralink work?

On my YouTube channel I made a video about Neuralink: the technology, the demonstrations with pig Gertrude and monkey Pager, their ideas, criticism and my vision.

My video about Neuralink

What is the vision of Neuralink?

Vision of Neuralink

Downloading a script for neurons that works for me in a specific way, copy this to someone else so that this person can do the same things as I can.. unfortunately it’s not that easy. The scenes from The Matrix, where Neo can download new skills, seem a long way off.

However, the perspective itself is interesting. On WBW [link at the bottom] is the nice comparison that we as humanity invented language about 50.000 years ago. That is a form of communication we still use. We added writing, printing and the internet.

But why can’t we communicate through our thoughts? That is the vision of Neuralink.

In September 2018 I talked to Elon Musk about this in the podcast of Joe Rogan:

Interview at podcast Joe Rogan (2018)

Explanation Neuralink

Musk sees himself as a heavenly stormer, designing a whole new industry with his ideas, money and imagination. The goal of this industry is not only to make money, but to advance the whole humanity.

What are the advantages?

  • Faster communication between people.
  • More nuanced and accurate communication between people (according to Elon Musk himself).
  • The points above are leading to better cooperation, more innovation, etc.
  • Direct use of artificial intelligence. Think about directly understanding a foreign language.

Elon Musk is disturbed by ‘the output’ of the human brain. This is excruciatingly slow, compared to, for example, ‘the high bandwidth of the visual interface with the brain’ (the eyes) of people. In other words: data comes in quickly, but to talk or type? That process is really slow. His idea is to capture thoughts and convert them into text or movement. Then the humanity would communicate a lot more efficiently.

The output of the human brain is really slow.

Elon Musk, Neuralink.

Can people then read your thoughts? Musk says that it’s not going to be that way. He thinks you have to make the choice to share a thought with someone else. Maybe we don’t even call it thoughts anymore. He can imagine that we will have a different word for the thoughts you keep to yourself and the thoughts you share with other people.

In addition, there are countless other challenges awaiting the scientists, researchers and technicians at Neuralink.

Criticism

The tricky part, according to researcher Paul Merolla, is that the functioning of the neurons differs from person to person. A second problem is the countless connections neurons make with each other in a network. We do not yet have the computing power to map this out and intervene. A third problem is neuroplasticity. De connections in our brain change every moment.

This means there are a lot questions unanswered. How can you create enough bandwidth with those countless neurons and connections? How do you channel the energy to the chip? Can we chip all humans?

Power

In an article for the Dutch newspaper Volkskrant, Esther Keymolen (University of Tilburg) indicates that you make people dependent of a commercial company: ‘You basically get a company in your head with this technology. It is already difficult to find out what technology companies do with all your data and how they make connections.’

You basically get a company in your head with this technology.

Esther Keymolen, University of Tilburg

I also discuss this with neuroscientists Martijn van den Heuvel (Dutch Connectome Lab). “The question is whether we want that as society. Do we want that? Do we want an extra hard disk of our brain? Do we want to be influenced by a chip? You can say that you will lose a form of autonomy as a result.”

It also provides a paradigm the other way. Maybe then a real collective consciousness will arise. Then we really become a new species through the symbiosis of man and machine.

There is also criticism of the technology. Professor David Eagleman of Stanford University says that it’s more likely that we can genetically modify neurons. Rather than that we can analyse or interact with the brain with nanoscale robots. We do not necessarily need to introduce invasive technology in the brain for that.


In 2020 Elon Musk visited Joe Rogan again to talk about Neuralink. I wrote a piece about this as part of my study in science journalism. For this I interviewed Dr. Mariska van Steensel (University of Utrecht).

After space, Musk now enters the brain

On May 7, 2020, Elon Musk joined Joe Ragon in his studio. Rogan is the host of an immensely popular podcast, the Joe Rogan show. The conversation starts about the name of Musk’s last child (X Æ A-12) and soon turns into Neuralink. A quote of the interview, which is viewed over 14 million times on YouTube. After more than 23 minutes, Musk says: ‘We are working on a chip that can cure all types of brain disorders.’

Take a look at the interview below:

Joe Rogan interviews Elon Musk in 2020

From epilepsy to Alzheimer

Musk: ‘Think about epilepsy. We detect that and send a pulse to counteract the attack.’ He gives the impression that everything is possible with Neuralink: curing sight, regaining control of reluctant muscles, regaining speech after a heart attack and reviving memory in Alzheimer’s disease.

Neuralink works on brain-computer interfaces (BCI), sometimes called brain-machine interfaces (BMI). There are methods for human to communicate with computers through brain signals. At the UMC Utrecht Brain Center, Mariska van Steensel conducts research into brain-computer interfaces. She and her colleagues are working specifically on the Utrecht NeuroProthesis, a brain implant that allows a patient to use a speech computer with thoughts.

Hawking was still able to control a small muscle in his cheek.

Mariska van Steensel, UMC Utrecht

The NeuroProthesis is for patients with severe paralysis, like the locked-in syndrome, which can be caused by a brain stem infarction (a stroke that does not get enough blood into the brain stem, PJ) – or an advanced stage of ALS. Due to their condition, they can hardly or no longer communicate. A well-known example is the late Stephen Hawking. Van Steensel: ‘Hawking was still able to control a small muscle in his cheek.’ For example, he could select letters on a computer, which converted the letters into speech.

Neural wires

The patients who van Steensel studies often can no longer use any muscle. The procedure is for a surgeon to drill small holes into the skull, place small electrodes on the brain and place an implant under the collarbone. That implant sends the brain signals from the electrodes wirelessly to a computer.

The first subject underwent this treatment five years ago. She communicates this way: letters light up one after the other on a matrix. By thinking on a specific action (such as clenching your hand) you make a so-called ‘brain click’. With that brain click you can select a letter or character. That way you can form a word or sentence letter by letter. ‘This is quite slow, but the first participant is really very happy with it.’

This is quite slow but the first participant is really very happy with it.

Mariska van Steensel (UMC Utrecht)

The hardware from Utrecht differs from the technology that Neuralink uses. Neuralink places the electrodes in a different location. In a paper from July 2019, Elon Musk presents their approach. He describes it as a ‘BMI system with unprecedented high bandwidth’. Before this, the company used 96 thin flexibel wires, each with over 3.000 electrodes. A surgical robot can pierce six threads per minute through the skull into the brains.

Panacea

Van Steensel: “They want to pierce a lot of small wires into the brain. We put the electrodes on the brain.” The conceptual advantage is that the data of Neuralink is much precise and detailed because the electrodes are smaller and can therefore measure smaller groups of brains. In a large group of brains, you have a greater chance that there are also cells that have a different function and that dilute the signal.

Still, Van Steensel cannot suppress her surprise when it comes to Neuralink’s promise to be able to remedy all neurological disorders as a panacea. Van Steensel thinks that is quite a bold statement: ‘Research groups all over the world have been working on brain-computer interfacing for years.’ In addition, you cannot put all brain disorders together. ‘You must have thorough knowledge of all those diseases. How it arises, what it looks like and what you need to fix.’

Testing on humans

In the interview with Joe Rogan, Musk is optimistic about the progress of the neural wires. He expects to perform the first experiments on humans within one to two years. Although the first tests with laboratory animals seem to be successful, the step to experiments on humans is not progressing so quickly. Van Steensel: “The regulations for testing on humans are strict. It seems hard to me to believe that they can test this on humans so quickly.”

She also sees a ray of hope. ‘The attention Musk gets generates a huge capital injection, which can accelerate the movements in our field.’ That is, if Musk has not find other interests in the meantime and starts living on Mars with his wife, X Æ A-12 and other children.


In August, 2020 Neuralink gave a presentation about the progress of their product.

Link in pig Gertrude

In August 2020 Neuralink organized a presentation. Due to the pandemic, it was broadcast via YouTube with a live stream. You will find the recording of the stream later in this article.

At the beginning of the presentation, Elon Musk spoke about the purpose of the presentation: to attract talented employees who want to work for Neuralink. ‘We don’t want to raise money today. No, today we mainly want to persuade people to work for Neuralink. That way we can further develop our product, making sure it is cheap and reliable so that more people want to wear it.’

The ambitions are still sky-high. Climbing mountains without fear. Playing a symphony inside your head. Discovering the nature of consciousness. Fix blindness, paralysis, deafness and mental illness. That is the promise Neuralink makes.

At the end it’s like a Fitbit, but inside your head with small wires in your brain.

Elon Musk

During the presentation nobody mentioned a time frame or date on which this all would be possible. Elon Musk is also not known for meeting such deadlines, but still. With this kind of applications many people would be interested in Neuralink’s product. That’s the goal: ‘At the end it’s like a Fitbit, but inside your head with small wires in your brain.’

Demonstration

Before the presentation Musk announced online that he would show a spectacular demonstration. He first showed the new version of the Link. This is a disc with the diameter of a large Euro coin. The disc communicates with a telephone via Bluetooth. The Link contains 124 canals and has the battery life of one day. If people are going to wear this version ever, they will have to charge the Link every night.

After this, three pigs came on the screen. One of them didn’t have a Link and another had the implant removed. They both looked normal and healthy. The third pig (named Gertrude) had a Link inside her brain. The signals from Gertrude’s Link were visible on the screen. For example, the image changed when her snout contacted the ground, searching for food.

Watch the presentation of Neuralink in August 2020 below:

Presentation Neuralink, August 2020

Theatre show

Science journalist Antonio Regalado from MIT Technology Review is not very impressed [link below]. Reading signals from the brains of animals is not very special for neurologists and neurotechnologists. He is especially critical at the promise Neuralink made to remedy a variety of cognitive disorders. The title of his summary of the presentation of Neuralink says it all. He describes the presentation as ‘an Elon Musk theatre show’.

In his presentation Musk refers to the rapid progress in the number of sensors on the Link and the possibilities to extract even more data from the brain, and vice versa. But Regalado writes: ‘You don’t necessarily solve conditions such as paralysis or depression with more computing power, but with more scientific knowledge about the electrochemical imbalance that these diseases cause.’

Black Mirror

Despite the criticism from Regalado and other scientists, Musk sees an immense potential in Link and her successors. Think about summoning your Tesla with your thoughts and operating characters in a computer game like Starcraft with your brain. Over time Link should help you save and replay memories. He quickly adds: ‘That indeed sounds like an episode of Black Mirror. But yes, I think they are good at predicting the future.’

The first clinical trial will focus on individuals with spinal cord injury (lower body paralysis) or tetraplegia (four limb loss). The plan of this first trial is to test Link’s effectiveness and safety. If Neuralink and Musk further fail to deliver on their ambitious plans, it would be great if they could help patients with spinal cord injury of tetraplegia.

Musk references to Black Mirror. In my opinion a superb series about our (technological) future.

In April 2012, Neuralink posted a video to YouTube featuring macaque Pager playing the game of Pong with the help of a brain implant.

Monkey Pager with the game Pong

In April 2021, Neuralink posted a video to YouTube featuring Pager, a nine-year-old macaque. According to the video, Pager plays the computer game Pong using only his brain. You will find the video later in this article.

Six weeks before shooting, Pager was implanted with a Neuralink, according to the accompanying voice in the video. The wires of the Link are inserted in the brain areas for movement and motor function, of both the right and left hemispheres. The wires send the signal they pick up at a frequency of 25 milliseconds through a receiver.

Smoothie as a reward

Initially, Pager plays the computer game with a joystick. If he plays the game well, he gets a reward: he can drink a banana smoothie through a metal straw. Meanwhile, Neuralink registers which specific brain regions become active. In this way, the system learns to predict Pager’s hand movements.

After the software learned enough, researchers at the company turned off the joystick. Pager then continues as usual. Instead of operating the joystick with his hands, he thinks about the movement after which the cursor moves on the image.

Musk on Twitter

As the owner of the company, Musk reacts enthusiastically to the video via Twitter. He states that in the future, someone with paralysis will be able to operate his or her smartphone faster with Neuralink than a person without paralysis can with his or her fingers.

Criticism

Not everyone is as enthusiastic as Musk is. Here are the main criticisms of the Page experiment:

  • Control with brain implants is not revolutionary. It is even used in people with paralysis. In 2015, for example, there was an article in Science about patient Erik Sorto. With a chip under his skull, he can control his robotic arm to shake hands and even drink beer.
  • Neuralink did not publish any articles, papers or datasets accompanying the video. This is common practice in scientific research, so that colleagues can check and repeat the procedure if necessary.
  • Using animals like Pager for such experiments does not feel right.

I have already described the first point of criticism earlier in this article. So far, Neuralink’s biggest distinguishing feature appears to be the robot that applies the neural wires through the skull into the brain. In Neuralink’s view, we will look at this surgery in the same way in the future as we look at LASIK (laser eye surgery) today.

As we are now looking at LASIK, laser eye surgery, in the future we will undergo surgery to have chips implanted.

Neuralink

On the second point, I can imagine that the company is cautious about sharing this information, because of its competitive position and the company’s interest.

The third point touches me the most personally. Watching the video I felt opposing emotions. It’s fascinating and also pathetic. Is it ethical to still use animals for this? I’m assuming the relevant authorities have given Neuralink permission for this, but still.

Experiment with animals?

On a superficial level, it doesn’t matter to Pager. He is happy with his banana smoothie reward when he successfully plays the computer game Pong. But animals, especially macaques like Pager, have a form of consciousness. At the same time, I am in favor of scientific research. It is a tricky dilemma in scientific ethics: is it inevitable to use animals for this? They do not give permission like test subjects do. How do we assess whether the insights of an experiment outweigh the suffering of Pager and other laboratory animals?

Pager is not an unlucky monkey

Musk on Clubhouse

Musk himself is outspoken in this. In a session on the Clubhouse app in February 2021, he said that tiny wires had been inserted into Pager’s brain. ‘It is not an unhappy monkey,’ he says.

Musk mainly used the interview on Clubhouse to recruit engineers for Neuralink. ‘If a listener is good at designing a Fitbit, Apple Watch, phone or computer, they would be a great fit for Neuralink.’ He does not name a number of roles, such as bioethicists, technology ethicists or experts in animal welfare.

Hopefully those positions have already been filled at Neuralink.

Look at the video of Neuralink in April 2021:

Pager playing Pong

In this part I will write about other interesting developments and initiatives in this area.

Developments

Neuralink is not the only company working on implants for brain-computer interfaces. These are some other interesting initiatives:

  • Kernel;
  • Neural Dust
  • Synchron;
  • Neil Harbisson.

Kernel

Bryan Johnson is the founder of kernel. Like Musk, he has made his living in the technology industry. He was the founder and owner of Braintree, a company specialised in payments on websites and mobile platforms. In 2013, eBay bought the company Braintree for $ 800 million.

In interviews, Johnsens regularly states that the question is not whether we will implant electrical chips in the brain, but rather when. Like Neuralink, the company will initially focus on treating neurodegenerative disorders such as epilepsy, Parkinson and Alzheimer.

Powerful trait of humanity

Bryan Johnson: ‘Intelligence is humanity’s most valuable and powerful asset. We have always come up with things like the wheel, a thermostat, and a calculator. Now we have artificial intelligence. Our technology and digital intelligence are developing faster and faster. On the other hand, our own biological intelligence has always remained somewhat the same.’

Our technology and digital intelligence are developing faster and faster. On the other hand, our own biological intelligence has always remained somewhat the same.

Bryan Johnson, Kernel

Johnson and his colleagues at Kernel recognize that there is still a long way to go. ‘The vast majority of calculations and algorithms in the human brain are still a mystery to us.’

Neural Dust

Jose Carmena and Michel Maharbiz are the founders of ioto Biosciences, a spin-off of the University of Berkeley (United States). With the help of investors, they are working on the development of Neural Dust.

Neural Dust are chips the size of a grain of sand. The chips are controlled and driven by ultrasound. In theory, the chips can be used to study, monitor, control and control nerves and muscles (remotely).

StimDust

In February 2020, they published a paper in Nature to demonstrate how it works. They placed the 1.7 cubic millimetre chip in a rat’s sciatic nerves. The parts of the system, called StimDust, were able to monitor and generate signals in the nerves.

One of the challenges, according to Michael Maharbiz, is to ensure that the chips function properly for a lifetime. ‘As soon as that succeeds, I foresee that a lot of chronic conditions can be treated’.

Synchron

At the end of 2020, Synchron published that the first experiments with their Stentrode technique were successful. The founders work at the University of Melbourne, Australia.

Compared to Neuralink and Kernel, Synchron uses a different method. Instead of drilling holes in the skull, Stentrode uses the blood vessels in the brain. The operation to insert the small and flexible wires is similar to the insertion of a pacemaker.

Pulling Wires

In the experiment, the Stentrode wires were inserted into two patients with ALS. According to the paper, the patients were able to control their computer and smartphone with their brains, without a touchscreen, mouse, keyboard or with their voice.

The surgeons ran the tiny wires through the blood vessels of the brain during the surgery, somewhat similar to pulling electrical wires in the house. The wires pick up signals from the brain and send them to a small box. This box is implanted subcutaneously near the chest. The box translates the signals and forwards the information to software on a computer or smartphone.

Watch a video of the company:

Neil Harbisson

Neil Harbisson was born color blind, but he can now hear colors with an implant. I often refer to him in lectures about this subject. Neil calls himself ‘cyborg artist’. He listens to colors with an antenna in his head. Not only ordinary colors but also colors we cannot see, like infrared and ultraviolet.

Neil was born with a hereditary defect that allowed him to see only shades of grey. In 2004, the antenna was implanted in his skull, after which he can hear colors. He sees the implant as a part of his body. This led, among other things, to a legal battle with the British passport authority. They did not want the antenna to be visible on the photo in his passport. Neil argued that the antenna is not technology, but a part of his body. The government agency gave in and his passport includes a photo with the antenna.

Dangling wires

Another event was less cheerful. Neil lives in Spain and visited a demonstration in Barcelona in 2012. The police demanded him to stop filming. A camera hangs from the antenna, right in front of his eyes. This camera records the dominant light spectrum. At the back of his antenna, near his skull, is a chip that translates the information from the camera into vibrations. Those vibrations are perceived by the inner ear as tones. Each color has its own tone.

The police pulled the camera off the antenna during the demonstration. Neil walked home with wires dangling. In an interview, he says it was one of the worst days of his life. To him, it was not a piece of hardware that had been demolished. A body part, part of his identity, was taken from him.

Listening to the Universe

Besides that his spectrum is wider than that of ordinary people, he is also able to send images to his bionic ear. For example, he says that he connects to the cameras of the International Space Station every day. ‘People do not realize that space is full of colors.’

People do not realize that space is full of colors.

In addition, the chip has a Bluetooth connection with his smartphone. This gives him even more options. In addition to space, he has friends all over the world who take pictures and send them to Neil. ‘I may be getting a picture of a sunrise in Australia right now and hearing its colors.’

Morse in your teeth

The implant in his skull isn’t the only upgrade. He also has an artificial tooth that is connected to his phone via Bluetooth. Moon Ribas has the same type of tooth. By clicking with their teeth, they are able to communicate with each other via Morse code. That code is sent to her smartphone via his tooth via his smartphone and then sent to her tooth. This allows them to communicate with each other even if they are hundreds of kilometres away from each other.

In 2018 I interviewed Neil for you English YouTube channel, together with Moon Ribas and Manel de Aquas:

My interview with Neil Harbisson, Moon Ribas, and Manel de Aquas.

What is my (provisional) conclusion?

Conclusion

It is difficult to form an accurate judgement of Neuralink and its plans. There are a number of reasons for this. First, the company does not follow the scientific method to share its results. From a competitive point of view, they do not share datasets of the experiments, the functioning of the algorithm or the parts of the chips.

Second, the company has a commercial interest in building a positive image of its plans, such as patient applications and ambitious planning. This partly explains the visions of Musk, who himself has invested 100 million dollars in the company. Sharing enthusiastic visions of the future makes it easier for Neuralink to attract investors and retain talented employees.

The combination of these two reasons creates a murky picture on Neuralink’s products and plans. However, I can share my vision, elaborated in a number of parts:

  • Progress
  • Safety
  • Technical challenges
  • Social challenges
  • My vision

I explain these parts below.

Progress

Despite the scepticism of many scientists, some of them are positive. For example, Grame Moffot (University of Toronto, Canada) commented in 2020 that ‘Neuralink’s hardware far exceeds any competitor in size, portability, power consumption and wireless communication.’

Neuralink’s hardware far exceeds any competitor in size, portability, power consumption and wireless communication.

Just like his colleague Ralph Adolphs (California Institute of Technology, United States of America). He calls the developments ‘extremely exciting and a great technical achievement.’

At Pager’s demonstration with the computer game Pong, the reactions are also positive. Ars Technica editor John Timmer writes that ‘it is especially impressive that they have made equipment so small and can communicate wirelessly’. According to him these achievements are more difficult than it seems at first glance [link at the bottom].

Especially technique

Moffot, Adolphs and Timmer respond in particular to the technical specifications. This is also reflected in my conversations with Mariska van Steensel and Nick Ramsey of the UMC Utrecht. They follow the progress with Neuralink with interest, certainly in the field of the functioning of the chips and the decoding of the brain signals.

As you will read in the following paragraphs, most concerns are not so much technical in nature. Challenges include safety, brain plasticity, privacy and other social issues.

Safety

In July 2020, the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) designated Neuralink’s brain chips as a Breakthrough Device [link at the bottom]. This is a voluntary program that aims to ‘help patients with life-threatening conditions and healthcare providers by accelerating the development, assessment and inspection of innovative medical devices’.

The FDA approval does not mean that the brain chips are safe. Bioelectronics expert Timir Datta-Chaudhuri responds to the demonstration with pigs Gertrude, Joyce and Dorothy in August 2020: ‘Neuralink downplays the risk of brain damage. But this kind of damage is not easy to see in humans, let alone pigs. You do not know if Gertrude suddenly has a speech impediment, or if other pigs do not hang out with her anymore because she’s behaving strangely.’

Neuralink downplays the risk of brain damage.

Safety encompasses several aspects, such as the correct placement of the implant and its toxicity. Implants should not leak, release or trigger an immune response.

Phil Kennedy and DIY brain implants

The case of Phil Kennedy serves as a warning [link at the bottom]. American Kennedy is a neurologist and an authority on brain implants. In the late 1990s, he implanted a number of electrodes in the brain of a patient with paralysis. He taught the patient to control the course of a computer with his thoughts.

In 2014, Kennedy felt that progress in brain implants was moving too slowly. He was eager to discover how this method would work in healthy brains. Kennedy found a suitable candidate for this experiment: himself.

Operation in Belize

Because such procedures are prohibits in de United States, he underwent the operation in a private clinic in Belize, a country just below Mexico. He paid $30.000 for this procedure, but it did not go quite as planned. Until a few weeks after the surgery, Kennedy had trouble talking and walking normally.

This story by Phil Kennedy shows that experimenting on the brain is not without its risks. That is why Neuralink is very keen to make installing chips as easy and safe as possible, just like ‘lasering the eyes’.

Technical challenges

Earlier in this article I shared the reactions of Professor Eagleman and Divya Chander. There is a risk that the brain implants damage some parts of the brain. They therefore expect more from robots at the nanoscale (Eagleman) or genetic modification (Chander).

Other technical challenges have to do with brain plasticity, where connections between neurons are continuously being made, strengthened or weakened. The software must continuously account for fluctuations and changes in the neural signals it picks up and has to decode.

Brain sloshing in your skull

Related to this is that it is difficult to keep the sensors in the right place. Every time you move your head, your brain sloshes into the skull. Your brain is a soft jelly substance. The skull protects that fragile substance and keeps it in place.

With movement, an implant, even if it is one of the wires from the Neuralink, can then move a little bit. That change can disrupt the measurements or worse, damage a number of neurons or synapses.

To give the company the benefit of the doubt, they have surprised the research field before with the size of the chip and the speed of wireless communication. As true engineers, they will also sink their teeth into the challenges I mention and other problems that I’m sure to come up with.

Bubble of neurotechnology

Apart from the technology, there are experts who doubt the functioning of the implants. Anna Wexler is an assistant Professor at Penn University in the United States. In an opinion article she is sceptical about the promise of Neuralink [link at the bottom].

We are still in the midst of a neurotechnology bubble fuelled by venture capital.

She doubts whether the technology can deliver on what it promises and sees the attention for the company mainly as a hype. Wexler: ‘We are still in the midst of a risk capital-fuelled neurotechnology bubble, one that will inevitably spawn an increasing number of prophecies about our science fiction future.’

Social Challenges

The technical issues are interesting, but as far as I’m concerned, the main issues are social and political in nature.

1. Ownership and data

2. Security

3. Development with patients

Ownership and data (1)

Frist, the ownership and access to data. For the proper functioning of the implant, it is inevitable that Neuralink has access to the data from the brain. The current way in which companies collect, analyse and sell consumer data unnoticed does not bode well in that regard.

In her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Professor Shoshana Zuboff calls this economic revenue model surveillance capitalism. In this model, man is no more than a raw material. Companies use the raw material to train algorithms. They use those algorithms to create advertisements to sell certainty to their customers: certainty that you will buy their product, purchase service or vote (or not).

Undermining democracy and autonomy

The model of surveillance capitalism undermines democratic processes and our autonomy. Without us being aware of it, we give up our data to be sent and manipulated later.

Neurological data affects us even more deeply as humans. Will we unintentionally give companies like Neuralink access to our unspoken thoughts, dreams and desires? That seems to me to be an undesirable scenario, but not inconceivable. As users, we have previously shared our data in exchange for services, such as a free search engine (Google), free email (Gmail) or a free social network (Facebook).

Pay with brain data

Not that I expect Neuralink to offer its chip for free, but there is a risk that its terms and conditions include that they may use and sell the data from your brain. Or that there will be a graduated scale whereby you as a user will receive a discount on the brain implant if you give permission that the data can also be shared with other companies and institutions. Then you pay with the data from your brain.

Fortunately, governments are increasingly aware of such developments and the risks they entail. In the fall of 2020, for example, Chile was the first country to introduce legislation to protect neurological data of its inhabitants [link at the bottom].

Security (2)

The second point is the security of both the data and the control of the equipment. You can imagine making clear agreements with a company like Neuralink about access and ownership of data. In that case, for example, there are guarantees that they only use the data for the operation of the chip. The data is and remains yours as a user.

Then there is still a chance that the company’s database will be hacked. Even if Neuralink has its security in order, it is possible that your chip as a user will be cracked. Or that is broken into on the smartphone on which the associated app runs or on the laptop on which the software is installed that allows you to access the chip.

Hacking implant

If it is only about reading data, that in itself is annoying. Imagine criminals gaining access to your wishes, memories and nightmares. A step further is that malicious parties can also operate the chip. That is the vision of Elon Musk: the chip can not only read that, but also send signals.

Incidentally, this is the challenge that Esther Keymolen expressed earlier in the article. Even though Neuralink is the only company that can send signals to the chip, the question is still whether you want a company in your head.

Back to hackers. Breaking into brain implants seems like something of the future, but this is already known for pacemakers. Legendary hacker Barnaby Jack had demonstrated in 2013 that he could take over implanted pacemakers. He had made a device with which he could break into someone’s pacemaker within 15 meters and give them a deadly shock of 830 volts. As the journalist who interviewed him wrote: that looks like something out of an action movie starring Jason Statham.

Dick Cheney

Someone who was aware of that even before is Dick Cheney. The former vice president of the United States said in an interview that in 2007 he had turned off the wireless connection of his pacemaker in consultation with his cardiologist. He was afraid that terrorists would kill him by sending signals to his pacemaker.

I knew from my own experience that it is possible to kill someone by hacking into their pacemaker.

In 2012, this scenario reappeared in an episode of the Homeland series. Cheney says: ‘I think that’s a believable scene. I knew from my own experience that it is possible to kill someone by hacking their pacemaker.

Development with patients (3)

The third point is the development direction of the company. In interviews and demonstrations, Musk and his colleagues indicate that they are primarily concerned with patients with neurological disorders. Their implant should be able to help patients with Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, deafness, depression and other types of disorders.

At first glance, this is a commendable and good starting point. At the same time, Musk also indicates that their product should also serve to improve people in the long run. A few options he mentions:

  • Telepathic communication, the direct transmission of ideas and thoughts;
  • Improvement of senses, for example hearing in a much wider range of frequency and volume;
  • Connection to artificial intelligence, such as access to the internet and algorithms.
US Army

In addition to their own vision, there are other powerful and wealthy actors who are following the development of brain implants with great interest. For example, DARPA, a unit of the US military that focuses on innovative technology, is known to follow this field with great interest.

DARPA invests in similar technologies that aim to help wounded soldiers with memory defects, for example due to physical or mental trauma in war situations. Like Neuralink’s primary goal, that’s basically something that most people will support.

Super soldiers

One argument that bioethicists often make is the sliding scale. This means that a procedure or technology is first used to help patients. If that works, then moral boundaries will slowly begin to shift. There is a chance that there will then be more social support for using the same technology for more functionalities, for example improvement.

In the case of DARPA, I can imagine that the military top or individual generals are curious about whether they can use the brain implants not only for healing, but also for improvement. In war situations it can make a huge difference if the soldiers have an above-average concentration, have a photographic memory of, for example, the map and do not have to sleep for days.

This scenario sounds like a science fiction movie, but it is not fictional. That is why I think it is important that ethicists, politicians, administrators and lawyers are informed and are actively involved in technological developments, such as brain implants.

Involve patients

Even more important than involving ethicists and politicians are the patients themselves. Certainly if Neuralink aims to be the first to help that group with their disorders, they must also be involved in the development at an early stage. Not only as a test subject during experiments, but also in a dialogue about the impact of such a device on their lives, the people around them and society.

In this way, we prevent Neuralink’s engineers and companies from developing their product from their own perspective. The technician are not always aware of their own background and prejudices, or how different they are from patients.

It is quite possible that established functionalities for patients are much more important than they are estimated by engineers, or vice versa. For example, some people with disabilities do not find it necessary that their condition be remedied. For them it is very important that society accepts them and that infrastructure is adapted in such a way that they can participate.

My vision

The technical and social in the previous paragraphs perhaps somewhat pessimistic. However, that is not my opinion of Neuralink, its product and its vision.

The reason is personal. My grandmother Leentje suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. They were not recognized again until she lost her husband and children. A terrible condition, both for herself and the people who have a lot of her development.

I would love to see a cure for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease (as you can read in the extra section of this article) and other brain diseases.

Game changer

Generating brain disorders from reduced symptoms through a brain implant is a functionality that most people are better off with. When I talk about this with other people or when I do lectures and webinars on this topic, I notice that things change when it comes to improving.

To start with the positive note: if the Neuralink succeeds in receiving our thoughts from each other from the brain to intelligent intelligence in a few decades, it would be a giant leap. In good Dutch: an immense game changer.

Hard to imagine

It is difficult to comprehend what such a connection with each other and with artificial intelligence looks like, let alone to put this into words. With the advent of the internet, few people could imagine email, online videos, services such as Uber, dating apps, blockchain or the Dark Web. Let alone what the impact is of a neural internet with Neuralink and similar products.

In the best case scenario, our intelligence lags as far behind super intelligence as a house cat is different from is.

The need for us as humans to merge with artificial intelligence is something Musk frequently mentions. For example, he makes the comparison with pets: ‘In the best case scenario, our intelligence lags as far behind super intelligence as a house cat differs from is. I do not like the idea of being a house cat.’ For that reason, according to Musk, it is necessary to connect yourself to super intelligence via a brain chip.

Do not be naïve

If the internet is a dress rehearsal, then we have something to look forward to with brain implants. A lesson we can learn from the internet is that concerned scientists, techies and engineers had a naïve hope of a utopian world beforehand. 

They worked for years as one gigantic network that would connect all people and all information on Earth. In this way, the internet could liberate people and make the world a better and freer place. That has also come true in a way, but we also have to deal with the dark sides. Think about the power of technology companies, fake news, data leaks, hackers, crime and illegal activity, dependency and much more.

Technology magnifies us

The most important lesson for me from this, is that technology magnifies us as humans. Our qualities, our positive sides and our negative sides. This applies to the internet and certainly also to a neural internet.

We have Palaeolithic emotions, medieval institutions and divine technology.

There is no simple and unambiguous solution. I often think of a famous quote by biologist Wilson. ‘We have Palaeolithic emotions, medieval institutions and divine technology.’ In fact, we also need to upgrade our emotions, our behavior, our institutions and our laws and regulations to handle the new possibilities wisely.

Making the right choices

More than a scientific or technological question, progress is concerned with moral, political and philosophical questions. These are topics that we must constantly put on the agenda and discuss.

Professor of public philosophy Marli Huijer puts this beautifully in an essay: ‘People and technology are constantly changing each other, they are looking together for what constitutes a good or pleasant life, making use of moral, political and social notions that are present in culture.’

Never finished

Our boundaries of what we are okay with and not okay with change over time and due to cultural, social and institutional factors. Every time, ethicists, but also us as individuals and as a society, will think about admitting new applications that science and technology offer us. Innovation, science and technology always go on.

And that is why ethics is never finished and it’s up to us as humans to determine. We cannot outsource that to technology. Not even if Neuralink offers that as a new module in their chip.

Bonus! Brain implants have been used in medicine for a long time. For example, Deep Brain Stimulation is used to suppress the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. In my (Dutch) book Supermens I write about this in the chapter ‘De Buutmeester van Limburg’. Below you can read the introduction to that chapter.

Extra: Deep Brain Stimulation

Hans can still remember the words of the neurologist well. ‘I was only forty years old. Parkinson’s was something for older people in my opinion.’ His world collapses. He mainly thinks about carnival, because that’s what he lives for. As a carnival artist or ‘Buutmeester’, he is asked throughout Limburg to play his skits.

Parkinson’s

Parkinson’s is a complicated brain disease. The way the disease manifests varies from patient to patient. The most well-known symptom is a tremor. These are rhythmic, trembling, involuntary movements of, for example, the hands, because muscles contract and slacken again. Other symptoms are depression, patients who remain nailed in place or who can no longer show initiative.

Hans is not going to give up. That is also the image I get of him when I speak to him in the summer of 2020. He welcomes me to a beautifully renovated farm on the outskirts of Nederweert, Limburg. Hans is wearing short jeans, casual shoes and a white polo shirt with blue-green accents. He has spiky gray hair and sparkling eyes. Hans, who has just turned sixty, talks about his condition. He does this seriously and honestly, with the occasional joke in between.

The operation

After talks with the doctor, the neurologist and his family, he decides to go under the knife. Surgeons insert two thin needles into his brain. The needles deliver small electrical pulses to a specific brain region. This method called Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) suppresses the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. A subcutaneous box supplies the pulses that go to the needles via wires under the skin.

In most DBS patients the box is under the collarbone, in Hans just above his hip. Hans: ‘I do not have such a wide upper body, so a box near the collarbone would stand out. Luckily they were able to place it near my hip as well.’ With some sort of remote control, he can turn the DBS on or off and adjust the voltage. Once a year he has an appointment with the neurologist about his experiences with the current and frequency.

Hole in skull

Hans has written an extensive report on the operation in 2014 and the effect on his life on the Maastricht UMC website. As befits a legendary carnival artist, his report is laced with jokes. For example, he writes that the neurosurgeons drive him to the CT scan. ‘A joke about an expensive transport didn’t quite get through! They must have been too concentrated.’

During the operation, during which the surgeons drill a hole in the skull and insert the needle, Hans is locally anaesthetized. He has to do various exercises, such as saying words or moving his fingers, so that the neurologists can check that the surgery is going well. ‘The first hole in my skull was made. I asked the neuropsychologist if there was anything wrong. What do you mean, she asked. Well, the teacher used to tell me I had sawdust in my head. He was wrong after all!’

Effect on his life

Hans is enthusiastic about the effect on his life. ‘I no longer feel that tension in my muscles all the time. I tremble less, have less stiffness and don’t feel any cramps. I also have more expression in my face.’ He radiates his satisfaction with the procedure. At the same time, he warns against overly optimistic expectations. ‘DBS only helps to reduce the symptoms. The Parkinson’s just continues.’ He notices that talking is a bit more difficult, although it is not certain whether this is due to the DBS or Parkinson’s.

DBS only helps to reduce symptoms. The Parkinson’s just continues.

Hans regularly speaks with fellow sufferers who are not so enthusiastic about DBS. Sometimes they are practical problems, such as subcutaneous wires that are too short, preventing patients from turning their heads completely. Usually they are people who had too high expectations of the procedure. They hoped to get back to what they were before Parkinson’s disease.

Dramatic side effects

Dramatic side effects, such as a case in a study in the Nederlands Tijdschrift voor de Geneeskunde from 2004, are unknown to Hans. This tragic case concerns a patient who was 62 years old at that time. He also had DBS to supress the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.

It worked, but he suffered from serious side effects. He had a quiet introverted personality, but the brain stimulation led to a radical change of his character. He became chaotic, started buying expensive things, started stealing, and cheating.

A sad ethical dilemma.

With the shutdown of the electricity, he regained his old personality, but also increased involuntary muscle tremors and bedridden. There was no middle ground: either a good mental condition but physically almost invalid, or a manic disinhibition and physically capable of more. A sad ethical dilemma. Ultimately, the patient, in consultation with his practitioners and family, chose the second option. After a court order, he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital.

Fortunately, DBS has developed further in recent years, with cases such as the 62-year-old patient from the case hardly occurring anymore. Still, the story is a warning that tinkering with humans can have unexpected effects that extend beyond the body.


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Please contact me if you have any questions! Like if you want to invite me to give a lecture, presentation or webinar at your company, at your congress, symposium or meeting.

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This section contains additional information: my presentation on the subject, a few videos and the list with all links.

Resources

These are other relevant articles on my blog:

These are relevant books:

These are external links that I have used, arranged per part.

Vision

Interview with neuroscientist

Pig Gertrude

Pager plays Pong

Developments

Conclusion

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