A chip in the brain: what is Elon Musk’s Neuralink company that divides scientists

Elizabeth Smith

Neuralink is a company founded in 2016 by U.S. entrepreneur Elon Musk and other investors and registered as a medical research company based in California.

The goal of the Neuralink team, consisting mainly of neuroscientists, biochemists and robotic engineers, is to develop Brain Computer Interfaces (BCIs), or electronic systems (chips) that can interpret and communicate with the human brain. These devices promise to be, according to Neuralink itself, “completely implantable and aesthetically invisible.”

Neuralink envisions that they can find employment in the treatment of various medical conditions. Such as Parkinson’s disease, paralysis, and other neurological conditions.

At this stage of the project, the goal is to improve independence in daily life for patients with paralysis. This this will be achievable by controlling computers and mobile devices through the mind. All through implantable “Links” inside the patients’ skulls.

What does Neuralink look like

Neuralink is about the size of a coin and is implantable directly inside the patient’s skull cap. It has two components:

  • electrodes with a diameter of 1/20th of a human hair called Thread that are grafted inside the brain and record brain activity;

  • the Link i.e., the shell containing the chip that receives the electrical impulses from the Threads, encodes them (i.e., turns them into binary data understandable by a computer) and sends them to an external device such as a PC or smartphone.

How does Neuralink work? A practical example

Let’s think about what happens when we use our smartphones. To do so, we make gestures on the phone screen for which there is a need for an extraordinary interconnection between brain and body.

To move our fingers on the screen, in fact, the brain activates neurons that send signals to the finger muscles through nerves. These cause the finger muscles to contract and we perform the desired action.

Here, the purpose of Neuralink is just that. To understand the activation patterns of our neurons that enable us to command our bodies to perform certain actions.

Read also: Deep learning, how the technology that is revolutionizing AI works

Neuralink’s ancestors: cochlear implants

Actually, devices “similar” to Neuralink are already in use in medicine. Think for example of cochlear implants. Namely, neuro-auditory prostheses that directly stimulate the auditory nerve inside the cochlea and are implanted in patients with malformations or diseases of the cochlea for whom the more common hearing prostheses would not be sufficient to ensure adequate recovery of hearing ability.

The first cochlear implant was installed by William House and John Doyle in California back in 1961. So we are talking about a technology that is now proven and installed in about one million patients worldwide.

A classic hearing aid detects a sound source and amplifies it inside the patient’s ear. A cochlear implant, conversely, translates the detected sound impulses into electrical stimuli for the auditory nerve via the implant installed on the patient’s head.

These kinds of devices are the “forerunners” of Neuralink. And they show us that the idea of designing electronic devices that communicate, in some way, with our brains, has already been studied by the scientific community and private companies.

It is worth emphasizing how, however, there is a substantial difference between a cochlear implant and the device developed by Musk’s company. In the former case we are talking about a device that merely stimulates the auditory nerve.

The devices designed by Neuralink, on the other hand, interface directly with the brain. And they “learn” associations between gestures and neurological patterns.

Read also: Elon Musk to launch new artificial intelligence company X.AI for the development of own TruthGPT AI project

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