Neuralink: a neural interface for reading thoughts and controlling computers
Elon Musk has invested more than one hundred million dollars in Neuralink and is actively involved in the company. Together with startup representatives, he told reporters about the successes of the first experiments and announced the conduct of human technology tests in 2020. As conceived by the creators, Neuralink will allow the most detailed study of a wide variety of neurological diseases - from blindness to paralysis and from Parkinson's disease to epilepsy.
Moreover, a potential neuroimplant can also be used for therapy. Its electrodes are able to stimulate the necessary parts of the brain and even single neurons. And in the event of an irreversible loss of control over the body, Neuralink will become a full-fledged interface for managing external prostheses, electronics, or even for a kind of telepathic communication. According to The New York Times, despite impressive results, the creators of the technology themselves consider it very far from commercial use.
A key innovation of the new neurointerface is the use of very thin polymer filaments with electrodes. Their diameter is from four to six micrometers, which is an order of magnitude smaller than the thickness of human hair. On each such thread there are 32 electrodes, and their total number in the current version of the technology can reach 3072 (96 threads). This allows you to receive tens of times more information from the nervous system than the neuroimplants currently in use.
To introduce the interface into the brain of an animal or human, a company created a special robot. Through a small hole, the machine enters the cranial cavity and carefully inserts the threads. With the help of artificial intelligence, an artificial neurosurgeon avoids damage to tissues and blood vessels. In a minute, the robot is able to implant six threads, that is, it will take only 16 minutes to fully integrate the interface into the human brain. Even taking into account the patient’s preparation for the procedure, its total time cannot be compared with conventional hours-long neurological operations.
According to Elon Musk, the main problem of neural interfaces is their bandwidth. Neuralink's know-how lies in the revolutionary chip responsible for digitizing the signal. Directly on the human body, signals are received from the electrode wires, they are cleaned from noise, digitized and amplified. An external signal ready for interpretation is sent to an external computer through the most common USB-C connector. Earlier in neuroimplants, this approach was not used.
The technology has been tested on rats and primates. The results are very promising: with the amount of data that Neuralink receives from the brain, the new neural interface is an extremely necessary tool for any study of the nervous system. A preprint of the article on working with rats is available here, and a description of tests with macaques has not yet been published. Before Neuralink is implanted in people's heads, its creators will have to test and demonstrate how safe implants are in the long run.