Musk’s new AI startup aims at human brain; tech giants already in that space

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Entrepreneur Elon Musk has confirmed on via Twitter the launch of a new venture company, called Neuralink, which aims to develop a brain-computer interface. According to people familiar with the matter, the company will pursue what Musk terms “neural lace” technology, i.e., implanting minuscule brain electrodes that may eventually upload and download thoughts, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Musk said recently that “for a meaningful partial-brain interface, I think we’re roughly four or five years away.”

The people noted that Musk, who is CEO of automaker Tesla Inc. (Palo Alto CA) and aerospace manufacturer and space transport company Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (Hawthorne CA), has taken an active role setting up Neuralink, which will be based in California where it was registered as a medical research company last July.

Max Hodak, who is said to be a member of the founding team, referred to the company as “embryonic,” adding that plans are still flexible without providing additional details. FirstWord Pharma says that Neuralink recently hired leading academics in the field, including Timothy Gardner, a professor at Boston University, who confirmed that he is working for Neuralink.

The neuroscience company reportedly plans to develop cranial computers, which the Wall Street Journal suggests will likely be used initially to treat intractable brain diseases. The sources suggested that the first products to be developed by Neuralink could be advanced implants, built on electrodes currently used to treat brain disorders like Parkinson’s disease, to treat conditions such as epilepsy or major depression.

If the technology is approved as safe and effective, the company may develop “cosmetic” brain surgeries to enhance cognitive function, the people said. In his tweet, Musk said more details about Neuralink would be revealed “in about a week.”

Steve’s Take:

As far as I can tell from the various news accounts, Elon Musk is at it again with pushing the envelope on new scientific exploration. But unlike his ventures with energy sustainable automobiles and deep-space exploration, he’s doing a 180-degree pivot into the human brain.

Sounds fascinating. But let’s take a closer look at this “new” frontier, as Mr. Musk envisions it and, more importantly, the words he uses when he talks about it. After all, he’s estimating that breakthroughs are “four or five years away,” and that’s sometimes how long it takes just to get a new drug approved.

Musk’s human brain startup will design networks to link human brains with embedded electrodes capable of transferring thoughts to a computer, according to the Wall Street Journal. Musk theorizes the venture could give humans an advantage when living with new generations of super-intelligent machines.

Looking through a glass darkly, Musk often warns of the dangers of artificial intelligence threatening human existence. He’s even suggested one reason to colonize Mars is to have an escape hatch if rogue AI brings havoc to earth.

“I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence,” Musk told an audience at MIT in 2014. “With artificial intelligence, we’re summoning the demon.” He called for international regulatory oversight, he said, “just to make sure we don’t do something very foolish.”

Ominous words. Almost frightening in a horror movie kind of way.

Joshua Conner, an adjunct professor of computer engineering at Santa Clara University, points out that the artificial intelligence field has grown rapidly in the last 10 years. Tech companies continue to develop new AI capabilities and bring them to market. Conner said research is pushing into fields to add capacity to the human brain–either to supplement human memory, add intelligence or computing power, or interfacing with tissues to treat neurological disorders.

Then there’s the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA (an agency of the Department of Defense), which is studying the potential medical benefits of electronic implants and the nervous system. Researchers at the agency believe technology could allow the body to better heal itself, and create a bridge between the digital and neural worlds.

Musk has been interested in the relationship between humans and computers for a while now. Speaking at the World Government Summit in Dubai in February, he said that,

“Over time I think we will probably see a closer merger of biological intelligence and digital intelligence.”

Musk thinks human beings need to help advance the ability to communicate directly with machines, or basically risk irrelevance.

He’s not the only one involved in such research, says CleanTechnica. Braintree co-founder Bryan Johnson has created his own startup called Kernel that is also looking into ways to improve human cognition.

The point, claims The Verge, is not to prevent AI bots from taking over the world but rather to “take the first steps toward hacking the brain, so to speak, so that human beings can in the future stay healthier for longer and potentially enjoy the benefits of treating the human brain like a computing platform.”

I agree with CleanTechnica that we’re a long way from implanting computer chips inside our skulls. Neuroscience still has only the most rudimentary understanding of how the human brain works.

“People are only going to be amenable to the idea [of an implant] if they have a very serious medical condition they might get help with,” Blake Richards, a neuroscientist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto, told The Verge in an interview earlier this year. “Most healthy individuals are uncomfortable with the idea of having a doctor crack open their skull.”

But Musk is always years, if not decades, ahead of the curve. He can see the day coming where medical science could advance to the point where it would be possible to wire up our brains so they could process information more quickly. A man who thinks about building space colonies on Mars can truly be said to have his eyes on a very distant horizon.

Bottom Line:

For the “brave new world” investor, let’s return to earth and reality, even if only briefly.

The Verge points out that Musk’s neural lace interface and other similar types of brain-computer interfaces exist today only in science fiction. In the medical realm, electrode arrays and other implants have been used to help ameliorate the effects of Parkinson’s, epilepsy, and other neurodegenerative diseases.

However, very few people have complex implants placed inside their skulls, while the patients with even the most very basic stimulating devices number perhaps in the tens of thousands. This is partly because it is incredibly dangerous and invasive to operate on the human brain, and only those who have exhausted every other medical option choose to undergo such surgery as a last resort.

As I mentioned, this hasn’t stopped a surge in Silicon Valley interest from tech industry futurists who are interested in accelerating the advancement of these types of far-off ideas, The Verge notes that Bryan Johnson’s Kernel is also trying to enhance human cognition. And he’s put more than $100 million of of his own money into it.

To be fair, the hurdles involved in developing these devices are daunting, to say the least. Neuroscience researchers say we have very limited understanding about how the neurons in the human brain communicate, and our methods for collecting data on those neurons are rudimentary. Then there’s the proposition of people volunteering to have electronics placed inside their heads.

Steve's Take: It will take 40+ years before neural lace becomes mainstream #medicine Click To Tweet

I’ve had just my chest cracked open and it’s no picnic. Musk’s timeframe of “four or five years” to start implanting brain chips is a bit too aggressive even for my crystal ball. More like forty to fifty years before neural lace becomes mainstream medicine. But consider how quickly Tesla took off, making fortunes for the early investors.

We should be hearing more about Neuralink from Mr. Musk next (this) week. Stay tuned.