MIT Technology Review polled experts to find out how novel and advanced Neuralink’s technology really is. What we heard is that Neuralink has a brain interface system that is state of the art but still leaves some very tough problems unsolved
Here’s our summary of what’s new about Neuralink, and what isn’t.
Overall idea: Not new. Scientists have been testing brain implants on patients that allow them to move computer cursors or robot arms for about 15 years, but only in research settings.
Design approach: What Neuralink is trying to do now is to engineer a safe, miniaturized interface that’s actually practical to have inside your head. “Conceptually that’s great; we need to get the brain control stuff out of the lab and turn it into a commodity,” says Andrew Schwartz, a brain-interface researcher at the University of Pittsburgh. Schwartz has previously worked with two paralyzed people in his lab and allowed them to control a dexterous robotic arm with their minds. But the experimental set-up is so complicated (including a fat wire that gets plugged into patients’ heads) the subjects can’t take it home. He says Neuralink appears to be working on the right engineering questions to make a more useful brain implant, though Schwartz adds that “I don’t know is how much of it is real.”
Consumer product: In the long term, Musk and company are aiming for a brain interface for the masses, not just the severely ill—the kind of thing you’d “recommend to family and friends,” according to a neurosurgeon who showed up to the Neuralink event in scrubs. This remains the newest, craziest, and most controversial part of the whole Neuralink project. It’s hard to imagine people getting brain surgery if they don’t need it even if the procedure is as simple as Lasik, as Neuralink suggests it will be. Whether personal brain implants are a cool idea or ghastly joke seems to be a matter of opinion. “My wife told me she wouldn’t want to get one,” says Hires. But it might not be long before your teenage kids are begging for theirs.
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