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Neuralink – A Brain-Computer Interface Technology

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  • Difficulty Level : Easy
  • Last Updated : 18 Oct, 2019
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In July of 2019, Elon Musk had a presentation detailing the Neuralink project; Musk states that human cognition has two major systems the Limbic System where our emotions, needs at once are processed and then the Cortex which involves thinking and planning. The Neuralink in its final form is to be the third layer on top of this digital super-intelligence layer augmenting ourselves with computers and eventually artificial intelligence depending on how you look at it.

We already have this layer in the form of our phones and laptops, you’ve all heard the saying that we have all of the world’s information at our fingertips the bottleneck and all of this is how we interface with that information. Fingers and speech are too slow and very low bandwidth form of communication between us and our devices. A much faster way to get this information would be directly, this is called the Brain-Machine Interface (BMI) and the Neuralink is an effort to solve this problem. It’s already been a massive multidisciplinary effort it includes scientists, doctors, electrical engineers, surgeons and more.

How does it work?
So our brain consists of neurons firing all the time in response to electrical signals sent when we see, hear, move, talk or think whenever a neuron fires from these electrical signals a tiny electromagnetic field is present. Basically, Neuralink is going to tap into these tiny electric fields generated as sinus junctions in the brain. It can interpret this analog data as ones and zeros to be used in the digital world the neuron pulses will be detected using tiny threads about one-tenth the cross section of a human hair or about the size of a neuron. Each thread is to be installed with a robot so it’s not going to burst blood vessels or cause trauma the needle for insertion is 24 microns in diameter much smaller than the state-of-the-art in deep brain stimulation. Such surgeries have been done before for deep brain stimulation for Parkinson’s sufferers though these traditional methods have a 1 in 100 chance of causing a severe brain hemorrhage a smaller footprint should make things much safer. The state of the art for Parkinson’s deep brain stimulation has around 10 electrodes the Neuralink contains thousands of electrodes. These electrodes need to be less than 60 microns away to detect a fire in Neuron and serve as the interface that reads data from the brain and sends data to the brain.

The Neuralink Chip –
The processor for making all of this work is something called the n1 chip. The n1 chip reads analog brain signals, amplifies them, digitizes them, processes them and sends it out to a pod device behind the ear. The pod device is the only thing that’s going to be upgraded and the implants stay as they are removed the pod and everything shuts off. The n1 chip is 4 by 5 millimeters low power and has build-in hardware for processing brain signals it can read 20, 000 brain samples per second so these are real raw signals coming from a Neuralink hooked up to a brain. What the scientists are looking for a spikes and voltage when a neuron fires this is the fundamental element of communication within the brain an algorithm can detect these spikes in real time, decode them and make sense of the vast amounts of data coming in. The system can not only read data from the brain but also write data. To do this a signal is run through an electrode near a neuron causing that neuron to fire.This kind of thing again isn’t new and has been done since the late 1950s. It’s actually the basic technologies behind the cochlear implant the one that restores hearing. The information put into the brain doesn’t have to be perfect because of neuroplasticity this means the brain learns how to use the new information reading data from the brain and putting data in the brain can be and already kind of has to treat things like Parkinson’s and Epilepsy but the future applications can include things as far as depression and chronic pain further applications could increase cognitive function and memory.

The Neuralink Plan –
The original plan for the neural link is to connect 4 n1 chips with thousands of electrodes coming from each chip. Signals will be sent via bluetooth to the pod device behind the ear and it will be controlled by a phone. The first goal is to get patients to be able to control a mobile device a phone, mouse or computer keyboard. The neural link will show us as a regular Bluetooth keyboard or mouse. They want to make people full independent of their caretakers. This sounds a lot but has already been done before with the technology called the Utah Rae with only just a hundred electrodes patients are able to text other people and control tablets with their minds. Remember the neural link has thousands of electrodes resulting in a cleaner more reliable signal for more complex applications . First application for the neural link is to tap into the primary motor cortex the part of the brain that sends signals down to the spinal cord and onto the muscles to drive the will start with simple things like mouse and keyboard but could also be used to read signals from all movement even speech and finally it could be used to restore movement of someone’s own body. The materials or properties that would make the brain not only accept the Neuralink but think that it’s a part of itself.

Future Of Neuralink –

Future of neuralink is predicted be in 3 stages:

stage one is to understand and treat brain disorders starting with people with serious medical needs.
Stage two preserve and enhance one’s own brain.
Stage three full brain machine interfaces.

In the future, there could even be a kind of app store for program that you can download and control with your brain. Other possibilities include a new kind of communication kind of like telepathy or downloading the memories of someone who’s familiar with a city so that when you go to that city you feel familiar with it too. The possibility is a kind of endless but of course, these are the very early days and we hardly understand anything about the brain right now. Although, what the neural link is basing itself off has already been done in the medical fields for decades. What they’re proposing is a giant leap above all that and it’s going to be a long road to get there.

So, some obvious questions remain is this ethical, should we do this, what about the risk well for that last one in terms of risks for Parkinson’s brain stimulation and other such procedures seem to a lot risky. Though there’s not a lot know about what the kind of technology that Neuralink is proposing, could lead to in its full form, the Neural Link.

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