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Tech news: quadriplegics will control technology with their brains

Threads are implanted on test material using a robot in a still image from a video provided by Neuralink during a livestreamed event at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, California. File photo: Reuters.

Threads are implanted on test material using a robot in a still image from a video provided by Neuralink during a livestreamed event at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, California. File photo: Reuters.

Published Sep 4, 2021


The billionaire tech entrepreneur, Elon Musk, is known for his innovative approach to challenges from electric cars to Mars colonies. However, when speaking at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2014, Elon Musk voiced his concern with regard to artificial intelligence (AI), which he called humanity’s “biggest existential threat” and “more dangerous than nuclear warheads”.

His concern is that as AI gets smarter than humans due to the powerful capabilities of machine learning, we could lose control over it, which would create a serious threat to the very existence of humanity. AI is currently developing at an exponential rate and once computers become superintelligent, they may be impossible to control.

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Human brain and AI symbiosis

According to Musk, one way to overcome this potential existential crisis and to ensure that machine intelligence does not surpass that of human beings, is to achieve symbiosis between the human brain and artificial intelligence. This can be done through a close coupling between collective human intelligence and digital intelligence and is the main reason why Elon Musk started Neuralink, a company working to create a high bandwidth neural interface between the human brain and machine intelligence.

The Neuralink brain chip

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In 2019 Musk showed a prototype interface system created by Neuralink that fits behind the ear and is connected to the brain with extremely thin wires of four to six micrometers in width.

In late 2020 Neuralink showcased a device the size of a coin with an amazing 1 024 channels (wires) that takes an hour to be installed in the skull without the need for general anaesthesia. All 1 024 channels with electrodes directly communicates with brain cells and both monitor brain activity and electrically stimulate the brain. The brain chipset then wirelessly transmit and receive signals from the computer via a Bluetooth connection.

The device was until now successfully tested on lab rats, pigs and monkeys. In 2020 Neuralink demonstrated how the chip was able to accurately predict the exact positioning of a pig’s limbs when she was walking on a treadmill. In April this year Neuralink made headlines when it released a video showing a macaque monkey with its implanted chip playing video games with its mind six weeks after receiving the implant in its brain.

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Possible human trials on quadriplegics

Musk’s Neuralink recently raised R2.9 billion in funding towards the application of their brain microchip in quadriplegic people to control digital devices with their minds.

The N1 Link neural interface entails a microchip embedded in the human’s skull with a thin array of tiny wires (20 times thinner than a human hair) connecting it to the brain’s cortex. The immediate focus is to assist quadriplegics to regain their freedom by allowing them to interact in a normal way with digital devices (such as computers and smartphones) through their mind. Neuralink envisions that eventually the chip would enable paraplegics walk again.

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Synchron human trials

Neuralink is not the only company attempting to develop neural-interface technology. A few weeks ago Synchron, a small biotech company, announced that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of the US has given them the approval for human trials of their neuro-chip.

After years of safety testing, Synchron will start human trials with six paralysed people at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital. The study will examine the safety and efficacy of the Stentrode motor neuroprosthesis in patients with severe paralysis. Merely by thinking about moving their limbs, patients would be able to control external devices and even electronic limbs and thus achieve an improvement in their functional independence. In a similar trial with four patients in Australia, the first two patients were able to successfully control devices to text and type through direct thought.

Implantation of the chip

Currently the Synchron procedures entail a minimally invasive procedure of about two hours, where the device is inserted in the brain via the blood vessels, similar to the insertion of a stent in the coronary artery. Unlike Neuralink, a robot to implant the chip is not necessary. Neuralink’s robot is, however, remarkable since it uses a stiff needle to punch the flexible wires into a person’s brain, almost like a sewing machine, while compensating for the normal movement of a patient’s brain due to the person’s breathing and heartbeat during the surgery.

Neurochips could change our lives

Neurochip implants could change the lives of people in the years to come. The device could help paraplegic people with spinal injuries, strokes, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer disease and other neurological conditions, to experience normal motor and sensory functions and to control robotic prostheses.

Indeed, the Neuralink, Synchron and similar neuro devices promise many medical and lifestyle benefits, but we will have to wait a bit longer before it will become commercially available. However, to undergo high-risk surgery because of severe limitations and to potentially improve your life is one thing, but to do it for fun or convenience is something totally different!

Professor Louis CH Fourie is a technology strategist.


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