Elon Musk's Neuralink, the secret company developing brain-machine interfaces, has shown some of the technology it has been developing for the public for the first time.
The first big advance is flexible "threads," which are less likely to damage the brain than the materials currently used in the brain-machine interfaces. These threads also create the possibility of transferring a larger volume of data, according to a white paper credited to "Elon Musk & Neuralink." The abstract notes that the system could include "as many as 3,072 electrodes per array distributed across 96 threads."
"Neuralink's system embedded in a laboratory rat ”
The system presented today, if it's functional , may be a substantial advance over older technology. BrainGate relies on the Utah Array, a series of rigid needles that allows for up to 128 electrode channels. Not only is that fewer channels than Neuralink is promising – meaning less data from the brain is picked up – it's also stiffer than Neuralink's threads. That's a problem for long-term functionality: the brain shifts in the skull but the needles of the array do not, leading to damage.
However, Neuralink's technology is more difficult to implant than the Utah Array, precisely because it's so flexible. To combat that problem, the company has developed a neurosurgical robot capable of inserting six threads (192 electrodes) per minute [automatically]"according to the white paper. In photos, it looks like a cross between a microscope and a sewing machine. It also avoids blood vessels, which may lead to less of an inflammatory response in the brain, the paper says.
For Musk, the central problem of interacting with AI is actually "bandwidth." than you push it through your voice or your thumbs.
Neuralink's machine for inserting the threads ” data-upload-width=”1800″ src=”https://cdn.vox-cdn.com/thumbor/FqwytDLS7hsJQeqq-Tgsll5WHE8=/0x0:1800×1849/1200×0/filters:focal(0x0:1800×1849):no_upscale()/cdn.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/18315616/embed_machine.jpg”/>
That wireless goal will be embodied in a product that Neuralink calls the "N1 sensor," designed to be embedded inside a human body and transmit its data wirelessly. It may read fewer neurons than the current USB-based prototype. Neuralink intends to implant four of these sensors, three in motor areas and one in a somatosensor area. It will connect wirelessly to an external device behind the ear, which will contain the only battery. "There is a whole FDA process we have to go though," he added, "we have not done that yet."
Matthew MacDougall, chief surgeon at Neuralink, said on Tuesday that safety is a primary goal, and that they ultimately want to be "more like Lasik" eye surgery – including eliminating the need for general anesthesia.
Right now, though, the company is still working in rats to make sure the platform is stable. But the technology, if it works, is promising: a "high bandwidth" brain connection, implanted through robot surgery. The connection made using thin flexible "threads" would allow many neurons' activity to be recorded.