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With brain implants, the ‘future’s gonna be weird’

Written by: Leonard Parker | Houston Business News | 04th May

Neuralink, Elon Musk’s brain implant startup in Austin, has a monkey that can play video games with its mind.

At least that’s what the company claims in a video featuring a 9-year-old macaque named Pager who has two Neuralinks in his noggin.

Musk compares the implants to “a Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires.” Each coin-sized device has thousands of electrodes on thread-thin wires that reach a few centimeters into the wearer’s motor cortex.

In the video, Pager’s Neuralinks connect via Bluetooth to a smart phone. As he uses a joystick to guide a ball into a square on the monitor in front of him, the brain chips measure his neurons firing and decodes their signals. Pager earns a sip of banana smoothie every time he completes the task.

Eventually, they take the joystick away, and the algorithm predicts Pager’s movements while playing Pong using only his brain’s signals. Remember Pong, the Atari game with two moving paddles and a ball bouncing back and forth?

Pager controls his paddle with his mind. The company calls it Monkey Mind Pong.

Pager the macaque uses his mind to play Pong in this screen capture from Neuralink's video. Neuralink is Elon Musk's Austin-based startup that's developing brain implants.

Courtesy screen capture

Musk hopes Neuralink will become the ultimate in wearable technology that could someday help solve an array of brain and spine problems like paralysis, extreme pain, memory loss, blindness, hearing loss, depression, insomnia, seizures and addiction.

“These can all be solved,” Musk said in a summer update about the company that currently employs about 100 people. “The neurons are like wiring, and you kind of need an electronic thing to solve an electronic problem.”

And there’s more.

In line with Musk’s other ventures, such as SpaceX and Tesla, Neuralink also has more aspirational goals beyond limiting human suffering. The technology may someday offer people the ability to download and store memories, communicate telepathically, unlock trapped creativity, listen to music mentally and, yes, play video games with one’s mind.

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One Neuralink scientist said he hopes the devices will help humanity understand consciousness.

Musk said the price point of the implant will be high in the beginning and eventually decrease to a few thousand dollars.

And installation will be a quick, outpatient procedure. A robot will bore a hole in the recipient’s skull, thread the wires into the brain and set the device flush with the bone using surgical glue. It should be invisible beneath the scalp.

Wearers will need to recharge their chip via wireless induction and install an app on their smart devices.

Musk acknowledges that it all sounds like the television-show “Black Mirror,” the modern “Twilight Zone”-like series in which humans navigate the dark side of technology.

“The future’s gonna be weird,” Musk said.

The theories behind Neuralink aren’t new. Scientists call the technology brain-computer interfaces, or BCIs, and researchers at the University of Texas at San Antonio are doing their own work in the field.

“It actually has a long history,” said Edward Golob, a UTSA psychology professor whose research delves into BCIs. “You can, to a limited degree in humans, read out someone’s intentions.”

Currently, he said, the technology only allows scientists to interpret simple concepts like right and left, but artificial intelligence and other technical advances are helping them gain more insight.

“I suspect people want to take the technology even further — to get the brain to be even better than it normally would by training it in some way and trying to input other signals,” he said. “That’s more kind of science fiction nowadays, but it will probably become science reality at some point in the future.”

But we’re still a long way off from solving brain and spine problems, let alone enabling everyone to communicate telepathically or have super-human vision with their Neuralinks.

“Putting metal in someone’s brain is something we should pause about,” Golob said.

In addition to the technical and medical hurdles, there’s ethical and moral issues with animal testing and patient welfare. Then there’s the privacy, safety and security issues of wiring people’s brains to the internet.

Sultan Alotaibi, center, of Mentis Team #4, explains to Ruben Asebedo, left, and Patrick Stockton how brain activity is collected through an Electroencephalograph skull cap, at The Tech Symposium held by UTSA's Engineer and Business Colleges. Tuesday, April 28, 2015.

Bob Owen, Staff / San Antonio Express-News

One physical obstacle is the body’s reaction to foreign objects such as electrode wires.

“Once you stick electrodes into a brain, the body doesn’t like metal inside of it,” Golob said. “So it mounts something called a foreign body response — it kind of looks like a booger — and that gunk that gets around the electrodes gets in the way of their ability to detect the electrical signals that you want to detect.”

Musk acknowledges this as a material science problem and suggests some type of silicon carbide could work as an insulator.

Golob calls BCIs an “orphan technology” that is trapped in the valley between where science has left off and investors bet on its continued development.

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Musk “has this vision that can excite not only his own company, and he’s going to put his resources into getting across this valley, but he may get other people interested,” Golob said. “They could really push this technology forward faster and get these important applications ready sooner than they would otherwise.”

While not as sensitive as electrodes inserted into someone’s brain, external electrodes are an easier sell with study volunteers and patients. At UTSA, Golob and his colleagues use external electrodes — a modified cap with dozens of sensors — to study brain signals associated with stuttering.

“We can look at it in real time and predict reasonably well whether or not they’re going to stutter or not, right before they speak,” he said. The next step is to learn how to “train the brain to get into the good state.”

“What we really want to do on top of helping people who stutter is think about diseases that are really bad — Alzheimer’s disease, for example,” he said.

If scientists can figure out what’s going on in the brain when something’s going awry, they might be able to help individuals use biofeedback to decrease their symptoms.

This type of therapy could help improve quality of life by decreasing symptoms, but it wouldn’t stop the underlying diseases.

“It’s still a hypothesis,” Golob said. “We’re going find that out hopefully the next year or two.”

The Neuralink people say direct communication between people’s brains via “non-linguistic consensual telepathy” is quicker and more accurate than writing or speaking. While I don’t want a hole bored in my skull, I do like the idea of thinking about this column and sharing it with you telepathically.

Maybe someday.

Brandon Lingle writes for the Express-News through Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms.