At a recent presentation in 2020, Elon Musk answered the all exciting question on “How does neuralink work ?” An animal brain activity being recorded was shown to a live crowd. It showed the current state of the technology which Musk thinks will help humans reach their true potential. Being able to communicate better with the devices that surround us will surely help us to, “achieve a sort of symbiosis with artificial intelligence” as stated by Mr. Musk.
Idea Behind Neuralink
We are already dependent on the technologies such as smartphones and computers. To communicate with them, we use fingers or voice as the input method. The information exchange happens at a very slow rate in comparison to how fast the electronic devices communicate. Having a brain-computer interface might allow this data transfer rate to increase. Also, who wouldn’t want to turn on their TVs by just thinking about it?
How does Neuralink work ?
To answer the question of how does neuralink work, lets first understand how the brain functions. An average human brain has around 86 billion nerve cells, known as neurons. These can be considered as the building blocks of the brain. There is active communication between the neurons. It is done via electrical and chemical signals.
Synapses are the junctions where one neuron is connected with the other so there’s an overall connection between the neurons. Let’s suppose you see your dog’s face; millions of neurons are fired at the moment as they communicate within themselves through the synapses for you to distinguish that it’s your dog.
Since the overall communication is done via an electrical signal, using an electrode nearby can allow the electrode to sense the electric field generated during the process. The electrodes can thus feed the electric signals onto the machine learning algorithms which can find the patterns our brain makes.
Suppose when you want to pick your right hand up, your brain activates a certain portion of the brain. This pattern can thus be learned by the machine and when a similar pattern is seen, the algorithm can understand the next time that you want to do the same task. This allows us to communicate with the machine without even moving ourselves.
Technology behind Neuralink
Even if the company has remained highly secretive about its details, we have a general understanding about the major tech behind Neuralink. Probes are the parts that will be inserted into the brain. The probes are made of polyimide and thin gold/ platinum conductor and are flexible.
The flexibility of the wire is required so as to not damage the soft brain. Polyimide is also a biocompatible material. These probes contain an area of wires that contain the electrodes that we previously talked about that will deliver the elctrical signals.
An Application-Specific Integrated Circuit (ASIC) is used as the recording system of the signals captured by the probes. The IC converts the analog signal of the brain to digital and serializes it so as to do computation on the signal. In the current iteration of the technology, the electrodes can only detect the firing of a group of neurons.
Due to the complexity of the insertion, the insertion of the device is done with the help of a robot. Living human brain can move around inside the skull. A feature called online motion correction is used where a video of the brain’s blood vessels is taken with a microscope. This video feed is used to move around the needle as a required adjustment during the surgery.
For inserting the chip into the brain, a 2mm incision is done on the skull which will be dilated up to 8mm. You can think of it as creating a cavity on the skull to insert the device inside it. After the procedure, Musk ensured that there wouldn’t be any wires or antennas coming out of the head after the installation has been done.
Uses of Neuralink
The aim of Neuralink is to help repair the problems that occur in the brain. Musk said that the device could potentially restore the eyesight of someone who has lost their optic nerve, give movement to a paralyzed person or even treat epilepsy. A far-fetched aim is to help humans communicate without the need to talk.
Since the technology is still in its infancy, we can all be hopeful that it will move forward as planned. If the claims come true, we will all be more connected as a species. It is an ambitious and a rather futuristic project by Elon Musk but not unlike some of his other projects.
Image Source: Robina Weermeijer