Months after the Twitter fiasco, SpaceX owner and billionaire Elon Musk is again under fire and is trending on all the news portals. Musk received his fair share of criticism when he fired a significant portion of Twitter employees. But now his company, Neuralink, is under federal investigation for a probable violation of animal welfare. Employees of Neuralink and activists have voiced concern over the deaths of several animals while experimenting with new neurotechnology. But what is this neurotechnology and Neuralink’s vision with it? Is it worth taking the risk? Read the blog to learn more and make your own decision.
Neuralink: Foundation And Aim
Neuralink was found under the radar by Elon Musk, Paul Merolla, DJ Seo, and Max Hodak in 2016. In 2017, the company announced that it was building an implantable device that could provide a remedy for serious brain diseases and, in the long term, would help to attain transhumanism. In many of his interviews, Musk has pointed out his desire to achieve a symbiosis between human beings and artificial intelligence (AI). Like a fanciful portion of people, Musk also believes that digital supercomputers will become far superior to the human race, and it would be wise to join and work with them in a symbiotic relationship rather than against them. The aim of Neuralink is to bridge the gap between human beings and artificial intelligence (AI).
Development Under Neuralink
To date, Neuralink has developed two devices, an N1 implant chip and a robot that will surgically implant the chip. First things first, let us understand the science behind the chip, and then we will straightaway discuss the details of the two mechanical wonders. A brain produces, among its 120 billion neurons, electrical signals to send and receive information. These signals travel around the body in different patterns and direct the body’s individual muscles to react and move in a specific manner. Keeping this idea in mind, Neuralink’s N1 chip is designed to monitor and record these specific patterns for later study. These recorded signals can be later used to stimulate electrical or mechanical devices using wireless technology.
The Neuralink N1 chip is similar to the size of a coin and is circular in shape. Each chip comes with wires that are 20 times thinner than human hair. The N1 chips are meant to be embedded inside the human skull, and from there, the wires will fan out inside the brain. The wires can both track brain activity and electronically stimulate the brain, as the wires are equipped with electrodes.
Surgically inserting such a device is a difficult task that necessitates precise skill sets. To meet this challenge, the company has also built a robot that stands 8 feet tall to implant the chip where the neurosurgeon wants it to be. The device, which looks like a giant sewing machine, will help implant the N1 chip, and Musk has claimed that the process would be as trivial as LASIK surgery. One of the most notable features of this machine is its ability to adjust its needle during surgery, compensating for the brain’s movement during breathing. Once the N1 chip is implanted, its functioning can be controlled via the Neuralink app. Charging it would also not be a problem, as wireless charging is available, which is quite natural considering the presence of the chip under the skull.
Prospects Of Success And Failures
What Neuralink has achieved in a short period of time is nothing short of a wonder. Elon Musk aims to revolutionize the medical field with this neurotechnology and has even made claims that the implementation of the chip would help in better understanding diseases like autism, schizophrenia, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, depression, anxiety, and many more, and eventually cure them. The company has been successful in implanting chips in several animals and even posted a video on social media portals in 2021 of a Macaque monkey playing a simple video game with an implanted chip in its brain. The company aims to start human trials as soon as possible and has even submitted the necessary paperwork to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Just like the two sides of a coin, many people are uncomfortable with this so-called holy union of the human race and AI. A few poignant questions definitely come to light when we discuss this sensitive issue.
- Without having clarity about the long-term psychological and physical effects, is it safe to opt for human trials?
- Will all people be able to get access to this technology, or will only a section create a tiered society?
- Who will regulate this technology, and will there be any government laws?
- What about privacy in an era of widespread surveillance?
Recently, reports have surfaced about the deaths of around 1500 animals since Neuralink’s experimentation started in 2018. Employees have complained about the rushed animal testing in this facility, which resulted in botched experiments. Federal authorities in the United States have launched an investigation into this matter to determine whether any animal welfare violations have occurred. However, one must note that there is no mention of the ideal number of animals that can be used in experimentation for research under US regulations. Also, it is yet to be seen how many deaths occurred directly due to the surgery.
The concept of neurotechnology developed under Neuralink is not something new. EEG (electroencephalography) and MEG (magnetoencephalography) have been clinically used for a long time to monitor brain activities. What Neuralink has been able to achieve is that it has streamlined the technology and made it much easier and safer. It has been able to create a wireless device that can collect more accurate data without being invasive.
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