Two weeks ago, Elon Musk had given the world a tantalizing glimpse of Neuralink, his latest startup. Neuralink was supposed to somehow augment human intelligence through electrodes implanted in brains, but details had been sparse. Like most of Musk’s ideas it had seemed outlandish, but oddly exciting. Musk has now elaborated on what he really meant — and it’s time to buckle your seatbelts.
Musk intends to do a lot more than merely “augment intelligences.” In a superlative post on WaitButWhy, Musk explains what his idea really meant – Musk is dreaming of a future where humans transmit thoughts to each other without ever talking and move things around with their minds.
Neuralink – The company
But first, the basics – Musk has announced that he will indeed be the CEO of Neuralink, which will be his third CEO position after SpaceX and Tesla. He’s also assembled a crack team for his venture — the post reveals that Musk talked to over a thousand people before settling on his cofounders and core team. Neuralink is well and truly on its way. It’s even listed openings on its website for roles such as Biomedical Engineer, Electrochemist, and Senior Neuroscientist.
Brain Machine Interfaces
What the company intends to do, eventually, is give people what WaitButWhy affectionately calls “Wizard Hats”. A Wizard Hat is something that’ll be put into your brain that’ll dramatically improve its capabilities. Neuralink officially calls it a Brain Machine Interface, and it can take several forms including implants, a neural mesh, and even silk.
Why Neuralink wants to put stuff into your heads is because it sees the brain’s bandwidth as a barrier. Musk believes that while human brains in themselves are pretty smart, where they lack is in communication — humans communicate with each other via talking, which has a bandwidth of around 1 bit per second; they communicate with computers through typing, which has a bandwidth of around 0.5 bits per second, but computers talk to themselves dramatically faster – a common USB can transfer files to a computer at a 1000 bits per second.
Musk feels that this bottleneck could ultimately make the human species obsolete. With artificial intelligence becoming smarter all the time, computers would be far more efficient communicating with each other to complete tasks, and cut humans out of the loop completely. Musk feels that this presents an existential threat to our specices. And since the progress in AI can’t reasonably be curtailed — science inexorably moves on to find more efficient ways of doing things — the only way humans can compete against AI is to make themselves smarter.
What Neuralink Will Do
How Neuralink wants to make people smarter is through several ways. One is motor communication, which will allow the human mind to control its own body parts, such as a bionic limb. “The first use of the technology will be to repair brain injuries as a result of stroke or cutting out a cancer lesion, where somebody’s fundamentally lost a certain cognitive element. It could help with people who are quadriplegics or paraplegics by providing a neural shunt from the motor cortex down to where the muscles are activated,” says Musk. Neuralink wants to bring something like to the market in around four years — about the same time he expects to send humans to Mars.
The other applications of the technology are more mind-bending — and possibly further away. Why only use your mind to move your own bionic limb? In a connected world, potentially anything can be made to change state merely through thought. “Your car will pull up to your house and your mind will open the car door. You’ll walk up to the house and your mind will unlock and open the front door . You’ll think about wanting coffee and the coffee maker will get that going. As you head to the fridge the door will open and after getting what you need it’ll close as you walk away. When it’s time for bed, you’ll decide you want the heat turned down and the lights turned off, and those systems will feel you make that decision and adjust themselves,” says WaitButWhy.
It doesn’t stop there. If humans brains can be connected to a large Internet of Things…why can’t they be connected to each other? Neuralink dreams of a future where humans will be able to voicelessly transmit thoughts and feelings to one another. And they’ll do it without the hassle of language. If you’re feeling hungry, you don’t say “I’m feeling hungry” to yourself — you just think of the thought. That’s how Musk believes humans of the future will communicate.
Neuralink, of course, doesn’t want to do this all alone. Musk has perfected a gameplan of how he changes entire industries. With Tesla, he created a cheap, electric car that made the world automotive industry take notice — since Tesla, nearly every major carmaker has an electric car project of its own, and electric cars will likely become commonplace over the next few decades. With SpaceX, Musk wants to make space travel accessible. By creating reusable rockets, he’s cut down the price of rockets by 99%, which will open up economic opportunities, which in turn will bring more players into the game.
Musk intends to do something similar with Neuralink. If he has his way, Neuralink will become the trigger for the upcoming Brain Machine Interface revolution. The company wants to create cutting-edge products that have practical applications. And as they succeed, more companies will enter the fray, creating an entire industry from the new technology, and potentially saving humankind.
Needless to say, challenges remain. All of Neuralink’s operations will require brain surgery or equivalents, and that’s no joke. Musk thinks that the number of qualified neurosurgeons will eventually be a bottleneck, and they’ll need to create an automated technology to perform these surgeries at scale. The technology too, is completely unproven, and there are other considerations — what happens if an implant is hacked? And the technology could lead to ethical and moral questions — what does it really mean to be an human? Would these superhumans be allowed to say, sit for exams, or be held responsible for crimes?
Musk, though, has never shied away from a challenge. There’s a pattern in how he starts companies — he’s essentially a modern-day wayfarer, pointing humanity towards the direction it needs to take. Neuralink might be his boldest bet yet. And yet, if he’s to be believed, it’s also his most important.