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What to Know About Neuralink, Elon Musk’s Brain-Computer Interface Project

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Elon Musk in 2017.Photo: Mark Brake (Getty Images)Elon Musk is set to make an announcement about Neuralink, a company designing brain-computer interface technology, on Friday, August 28. It sounds like science fiction, but research in this area has progressed rapidly in recent years, though we’re still far from being able to send emails with our minds. Unlike Musk’s other famous ventures, SpaceX and Tesla, however, Neuralink will be vastly more limited in terms of how fast it can innovate and push out consumer products. Here’s what you should know about the project, including what’s theoretically possible, how skeptical you should be, and who else is designing brain-computer interfaces. Announced by Elon Musk in 2017, Neuralink will attempt to use “ultra-high bandwidth brain-machine interfaces to connect humans and computers,” or more simply, to connect human brains with computers via implantable brain chips.At first, Neuralink’s brain-machine interfaces could be used to treat brain disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, and depression. They could also be used in conjunction with advanced assistive devices, in which a person’s thoughts could control artificial limbs or other prosthetics. Should Musk’s ultimate vision be achieved, however, this technology would take on a more transhumanistic complexion, allowing future humans to control external devices with their minds, transmit thoughts directly to another person’s brain, and even augment cognitive capacities, such as increased intelligence and memory. More conceptually, Musk has positioned Neuralink as a potential way for humanity to prevent an AI apocalypse, saying the technology could help us “achieve a sort of symbiosis with artificial intelligence,” as he said when the project was launched three years ago. By boosting our puny brains, he argued, we will stand toe-to-toe with our advanced technologies, in a kind of “can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” solution to the pending problem, which I critiqued back in 2017. G/O Media may get a commissionThese ideas are nothing new, of course. Science fiction has been on top of this for decades, whether it be William Gibson’s cranial jacks, Iain Banks’s neural lace, The Matrix’s brain plug, or any speculative vision in which human minds commune directly with the digital realm.So this all sounds very fascinating—and it is—but here’s the requisite bucket of cold water: Unlike electric cars or rockets, brain-computer interfaces are considered medical devices, which means the company will have to go through the appropriate regulatory channels to get its experiments and products approved for use in humans, including consent from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Like other drug and medical device developers, whether public or private, Neuralink will have to demonstrate the safety and efficacy of its products, typically through meticulous and time-consuming clinical trials. Given that the company wants to implant chips into people’s brains—including the brains of perfectly healthy people—this will present some unique challenges, involving timeframes that may be measured in decades. Neuralink will also be hampered by the fact that some of its more futuristic offerings will be considered an enhancement, not a therapy, which will undoubtedly further complicate
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