The tech wizard Elon Musk’s vision of developing brain-machine interfaces is both fascinating and frightening, given its far-reaching implications for the future of humanity. His company, Neuralink, is working on developing implanting devices in paralyzed humans, allowing them to control phones or computers. In the long run, the researchers hope to develop computer chips that can be embedded in a person’s brain by a surgical robot. The day is not far off when one can download the entire material of any given subject directly onto the brain through these chips. Such an advancement in the human-machine interface can throw up endless possibilities, some of them can be weird and even scary. The implant would connect wirelessly to a small behind-the-ear receiver that could communicate with a computer. The implant could one day help quadriplegics control smartphones, and perhaps even endow users with a sort of telepathy. Like existing brain-machine interfaces, it would collect electrical signals sent out by the brain and interpret them as actions. Neuralink’s promise of a brain-connected device that looks as nondescript as a hearing aid — the kind of thing you could hide with hair or a hat — is exciting to scientists who have spent years working on this technology. The first big advance is flexible “threads,” which are less likely to damage the brain than the materials currently used in brain-machine interfaces. These threads also create the possibility of transferring a higher volume of data.
A positive fallout of this fascinating technology, set to go for human trials by the end of next year, is that a person with a severe impairment, fitted with a device such as the one Neuralink outlined, can become much more autonomous. However, the challenge lies in installing the neural implant in a non-invasive way as well as achieving enough bandwidth between the neural implant and the brain. In the distant future, this technology can be applied to things like thought transmission, memory enhancement or working with artificial intelligence. Neuralink could be a boon for people with conditions such as quadriplegia, enabling increased independence and ushering in potentially life-transforming technology out of the lab and into the real world. A paralyzed person, sitting in a wheelchair, would be able to drive it by thinking rather than using a joystick and even control a prosthetic arm connected to the chair as well. The ultimate goal of this system is to allow humans to communicate wirelessly with machines directly from their brains. However, it can raise ethical and security related questions as well. Since the brain implant is designed to be controlled by a mobile phone app, hacking into such an app could be far more dangerous than hacking into one’s bank account.