THE NEXT BIG STEP in the technological revolution has arrived. Neuralink, a tech development company owned by Elon Musk, has made another important stride in their quest to make brain implants, and the premise of The Terminator franchise, a reality. Neuralink has announced it’s received approval from an independent reviewer to begin human trials for its brain-computer interface, which aims to allow people living with paralysis to control external devices using only their minds.
As has been the case since the 20th Century, the direction of society is often dictated by the whims of our ultra-rich tech overlords. In this instance, Musk’s pursuit of brain implant technology could open a new technological market, with applications primarily in medicine, but also in everyday circumstances. Musk has been promoting Neuralink profusely, and while his is not the only company developing brain implants, his promises that the technology will allow superhuman powers like telepathy, enhanced memory, and the ability to communicate with artificial intelligence, have set the Neuralink apart from its competitors.
In addition to providing a suitable plot for a sci-fi film, the Neuralink brain implant even has an appropriate name for an omniscient villain. The technology is called PRIME (yes, in all caps). It’s short for Precise Robotically Implanted Brain-Computer Interface, which seems more like forced branding than a natural acronymisation. It’s almost as if they’re trying to make it sound as malevolent as humanly—or machinely—possible.
Why is Elon Musk developing a brain implant?
Musk’s intentions are more benevolent than you might think. Neuralink’s implant is designed to assist individuals with quadriplegia, ALS and other spinal cord injuries. If it works as advertised, the technology will allow paralysed people to control devices by using their thoughts. In one of his more ambitious claims, Musk said on X that the technology “ultimately has the potential to restore full body movement.”
Outside of its medical applications, Musk says Neuralink will have far-reaching benefits. “In the long term, Neuralink hopes to play a role in civilizational AI risk reduction by improving human to AI (and human to human) bandwidth by several orders of magnitude,” he said. Musk has always been wary of AI, and this project seems to be his solution to the dangers the technology poses.
How will the Neuralink implant work?
The Neuralink implant aims to allow people with paralysis to communicate, without requiring any physical input. Paralysis occurs when nerve signals from the brain are prevented from reaching muscles. Individuals showing symptoms of paralysis, which is common in cases of ALS and quadriplegia, suffer from reduced physical function and can lose the ability to communicate, but often maintain cognitive function. The Neuralink implant aims to improve their communication abilities by “enabling people with paralysis to control external devices with their thoughts,” according to a statement.
For Neuralink to work, thousands of tiny electrodes are implanted in the brain. These electrodes function by reading nerve signals and communicating them to a device which relays the message its user is trying to send.
This may sound complex. So, to make it simpler, think of Stephen Hawking, who communicated by typing words into a voice synthesizer, and eventually by twitching his cheek muscle to communicate. Neuralink will allow a similar outcome, without requiring any physical input. Instead, it will essentially read the thoughts of its users before communicating them through an external device.
Is the Neuralink implant safe?
We’ll find out soon. There are concerns over the safety of Neuralink’s technology and a number of risks are involved for patients taking part in clinical trials. Neuralink has faced heavy criticism in the past for their treatment of animals which have been used as test subjects. Last year, Neuralink came under fire for conducting “invasive and deadly brain experiments” on animals and for violating animal welfare regulations. The company was investigated after documents revealed they had euthanised more than 1,500 animals since beginning operations.
Among the animals euthanised were test subjects implanted with Neuralink’s brain chip. After reports emerged that most of the chimpanzee’s that received the brain implant had died, Musk maintained that the implant wasn’t the cause. “No monkey has died as a result of a Neuralink implant,” Musk posted to X.
Of course, the fact that the implant has been approved for human testing indicates that it’s safer than most reports suggest. It takes more than a few assurances from a tech mogul to secure approval for human trials. So the implant is at least safe enough for testing, and we’ll find out if it isn’t safe enough for wider implementation soon enough.
Are brain implants going to become commonplace?
You heard it here first, ten years from now we could all be cyborgs walking around with chips in our brains. While Neuralink’s implants are currently only being developed for medical purposes, if Musk’s lofty promises are anything to go by, the ability to control technology with nothing but our thoughts could have applications in many other areas.
Musk is promising the Neuralink implant will eventually have cognitive enhancing capabilities. Including better memory and decision-making skills while also fighting depression and anxiety. Musk is also claiming the technology will eventually be able to restore vision, hearing and physical function.
These are rather aspirational goals. It’s more likely that Neuralink will indeed be able to read our thoughts, but it will use that ability by communicating with other devices rather than allowing superpowers. Basically, rather than saying “Hey Siri, what’s the weather like tomorrow”, you could just think it, and get a response. Alternatively, when that infuriating ‘Are you still watching’ message pops up during a Netflix binge session, you won’t need to desperately search for your remote. Instead, simply thinking ‘yes’ should do the trick. If the similarities between the Neuralink brain implant and Skynet from The Terminator haven’t deterred you, you can check your eligibility for the technology and join the patient registry for clinical trials here: neuralink.com