Elon Musk wants to merge humans with AI. How many brains will be damaged along the way?

Sigal Samuel serves as a senior reporter for Vox's Future Perfect and is also a co-host of the Future Perfect podcast. Her primary focus is on exploring the future of consciousness, closely monitoring developments in artificial intelligence and neuroscience, and delving into the profound ethical implications associated with these advancements. Prior to her role at Vox, Sigal held the position of religion editor at The Atlantic.

What is Neuralink for? In the short term, it’s for helping people with paralysis. But that’s not the whole answer.

Launched in 2016, Neuralink disclosed in 2019 its development of flexible “threads” designed for implantation into the brain, accompanied by a sewing-machine-like robot for the implantation process. The concept revolves around these threads capturing signals from the brain of paralyzed individuals and transmitting that data to an iPhone or computer. This innovation aims to empower patients to control devices using their thoughts alone, eliminating the need for physical interaction such as tapping, typing, or swiping.

While Neuralink has conducted testing on animals, the company made a significant stride in May by securing FDA approval to conduct its inaugural clinical trial involving human participants. Currently, Neuralink is actively recruiting paralyzed volunteers to assess the efficacy of the implant in enabling control over external devices. Successful implementation of this technology in humans has the potential to significantly enhance the quality of life for millions of individuals. Notably, approximately 5.4 million people are grappling with paralysis in the United States alone.

While assisting paralyzed individuals is a stepping stone, Elon Musk’s ultimate goal with Neuralink extends far beyond this humanitarian endeavor. Musk envisions achieving a profound symbiosis with artificial intelligence (AI), aiming to create technology that allows humans to seamlessly merge with AI to avoid being “left behind” in the wake of AI’s increasing sophistication.

This visionary objective, articulated by Musk himself, surpasses the conventional scope for which the FDA typically approves human trials. However, focusing on aiding individuals with paralysis has garnered a more favorable reception, facilitating progress in Neuralink’s pursuits.

Yet, it’s crucial to acknowledge the staggering risks associated with this technology. Allegations from former Neuralink employees and industry experts suggest that the company pursued an unnecessarily invasive and potentially hazardous approach to brain implants, posing risks of damage, as evidenced in animal test subjects. The motivation behind such methods is purportedly driven by Musk’s ambition to expedite the merging of human and AI capabilities.

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Elon Musk wants to merge humans with AI. How many brains will be damaged along the way? 4

Despite requests for comment, Neuralink has not responded, leaving questions about the company’s intentions and safety measures unanswered. Beyond the confines of Neuralink, the broader ethical risks for society are evident. Numerous companies are developing technologies that interface with human brains, capable of decoding thoughts and raising concerns about mental privacy erosion and the amplification of authoritarian surveillance. As advancements unfold, societal preparedness becomes paramount in navigating the implications of these emerging technologies.

Why Elon Musk wants to merge human brains with AI

Neuralink emerges as a response to a pervasive concern: the fear that artificial intelligence (AI) could potentially dominate the world. This apprehension is increasingly shared among AI leaders who worry about creating machines surpassing human intelligence, capable of deceiving and ultimately seizing control.

In March, Elon Musk, alongside other prominent figures, signed an open letter advocating for a six-month pause in developing AI systems more powerful than OpenAI’s GPT-4. The letter underscored the profound risks posed by AI systems with human-competitive intelligence, questioning the wisdom of developing nonhuman minds that could potentially outnumber, outsmart, obsolete, and replace humanity, risking a loss of control over civilization.

Musk’s approach to mitigating these risks diverges from others. His strategy can be summed up as “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” Musk envisions a future where AI systems, communicating at a trillion bits per second, would perceive humans, communicating at a mere 39 bits per second, as inferior. To address this perceived inferiority, Musk proposes aligning human capabilities with those of AI to avoid becoming obsolete.

Central to Musk’s vision is the ability to think and communicate at the speed of AI. He emphasizes the importance of bandwidth and the speed of the connection between the human brain and its digital counterpart. According to Musk, a high-bandwidth interface to the brain is key to achieving symbiosis between human and machine intelligence, potentially solving the challenges of control and usefulness in the evolving landscape of AI.

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The Neuralink device stands as a brain implant, equipped with 1,024 electrodes designed to capture signals from a multitude of neurons. The greater the number of electrodes, the broader the range of neurons that can be monitored, resulting in increased data acquisition. Additionally, the proximity to these neurons plays a crucial role in enhancing the quality of the obtained data.

Notably, the Neuralink device achieves an exceptionally close proximity to neurons. The implantation procedure involves a rather invasive approach, necessitating the drilling of a hole in the skull to penetrate the brain.

However, alternative and less extreme methods exist, as demonstrated by other companies in the field. Let’s delve into their approaches and explore the reasons behind Elon Musk’s decision to pursue a distinctive path in the development of Neuralink.

There are other ways to make a brain-computer interface. Why is Neuralink choosing the most extreme one?

Neuralink is not the sole company delving into the realm of brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) to restore individuals’ physical capabilities. Other companies, including Synchron, Blackrock Neurotech, Paradromics, and Precision Neuroscience, are actively engaged in this field. Additionally, the United States military is also involved in exploring and advancing technology related to brain-computer interfaces. The collective efforts of these entities highlight the growing interest and research in the development of BCIs to address various physical challenges and enhance human capabilities.

In recent years, much of the spotlight in brain-computer interface (BCI) research has focused on brain implants designed to translate the thoughts of paralyzed individuals into speech. Companies like Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta are actively working on BCIs capable of extracting thoughts directly from neurons and converting them into real-time speech. The long-term vision is to enable individuals to control keyboards, augmented reality glasses, and more using their thoughts alone.

However, early successes in the BCI field were centered on facilitating movement rather than speech. In 2006, Matthew Nagle, a person with spinal cord paralysis, received a brain implant from the research consortium BrainGate. The implant featured a “Utah” array, consisting of around 100 electrodes embedded into the brain. Despite being a fraction of the electrodes in Neuralink’s device, it allowed Nagle to control a computer cursor, play games like Pong, check email, adjust TV settings, and manipulate a robotic limb. Subsequent advancements in BCI technology have enabled others with paralysis to achieve similar feats.

While earlier technologies like the Utah array were noticeable protrusions, newer BCIs are virtually invisible once implanted, and some are less invasive. For instance, Synchron’s BCI utilizes stent technology, which has been in use since the 1980s. By introducing a stent into a blood vessel in the brain’s motor cortex via a catheter, Synchron’s technology unfolds within the vessel like a flower, with sensors picking up signals from neurons. This approach has empowered several paralyzed individuals to communicate via tweeting and texting using their thoughts, all without the need for open brain surgery or skull drilling.

Elon Musk himself has emphasized that BCIs might not require open brain surgery. In a video from Recode’s Code Conference in 2016, Musk suggested the possibility of accessing neurons through veins and arteries, providing a less invasive route. He playfully added that it “doesn’t involve chopping your skull off or anything like that,” assuring a less intrusive approach to BCI implementation.

In Neuralink’s early stages, before settling on its current method involving skull drilling, one of its research teams reportedly explored a less invasive intravascular approach, according to information provided by four former Neuralink employees. This alternative method involved delivering a device to the brain through an artery, demonstrating its feasibility.

However, by 2019, Neuralink opted for the more invasive surgical robot, implanting threads directly into the brain. The reason behind this decision remains undisclosed, but some speculate it is tied to the company’s pursuit of maximizing bandwidth. Hirobumi Watanabe, who led Neuralink’s intravascular research team in 2018, emphasized the company’s drive for more electrodes and greater bandwidth to surpass the capabilities of other technologies.

Neuralink’s ambition, as articulated by Elon Musk, revolves around creating a generalized brain interface that enables the seamless merger of humans with artificial intelligence (AI). This vision includes enhanced cognitive and sensory abilities, aligning with Silicon Valley’s transhumanist aspirations.

Watanabe suggested that the intravascular approach might not have offered as much bandwidth as the invasive method. While staying within blood vessels may be safer, it limits access to a lower number of neurons. Consequently, Neuralink chose the more invasive approach to achieve higher bandwidth and precision, crucial for their overarching goal.

Tom Oxley, CEO of Synchron, raised a pertinent question regarding the potential clash between short-term patient-oriented clinical health outcomes and the long-term goal of AI symbiosis. He emphasized the importance of designing solutions with specific patient problems in mind, suggesting that Synchron’s approach focuses on achieving enough signal to address patient needs rather than pursuing maximal bandwidth.

The debate over the choice between invasive and less invasive methods underscores the tension between immediate clinical applications and the long-term vision of merging human intelligence with AI. While some argue for prioritizing patient-oriented outcomes, others contend that higher bandwidth is necessary for realizing Neuralink’s broader goals.

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Ben Rapoport, a neurosurgeon who left Neuralink to found Precision Neuroscience, emphasized that any time you’ve got electrodes penetrating the brain, you’re doing some damage to brain tissue. And that’s unnecessary if your goal is helping paralyzed patients.

“I don’t think that tradeoff is required for the kind of neuroprosthetic function that we need to restore speech and motor function to patients with stroke and spinal cord injury,” Rapoport told me. “One of our guiding philosophies is that building a high-fidelity brain-computer interface system can be accomplished without damaging the brain.”

To prove that you don’t need Muskian invasiveness to achieve high bandwidth, Precision has designed a thin film that coats the surface of the brain with 1,024 electrodes — the same number of electrodes in Neuralink’s implant — that deliver signals similar to Neuralink’s. The film has to be inserted through a slit in the skull, but the advantage is that it sits on the brain’s surface without penetrating it. Rapoport calls this the “Goldilocks solution,” and it’s already been implanted in a handful of patients, recording their brain activity at high resolution.

“It’s key to do a very, very safe procedure that doesn’t damage the brain and that is minimally invasive in nature,” Rapoport said. “And furthermore, that as we scale up the bandwidth of the system, the risk to the patient should not increase.”

This makes sense if your most cherished ambition is to help patients improve their lives as much as possible without courting undue risk. But Musk, we know, has other ambitions.

“What Neuralink doesn’t seem to be very interested in is that while a more invasive approach might offer advantages in terms of bandwidth, it raises greater ethical and safety concerns,” Ienca told me. “At least, I haven’t heard any public statement in which they indicate how they intend to address the greater privacy, safety, and mental integrity risks generated by their approach. This is strange because according to international research ethics guidelines it wouldn’t be ethical to use a more invasive technology if the same performance can be achieved using less invasive methods.”

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