Following electric car Tesla, SpaceX with satellites and recyclable rockets, and Hyperloop Hypercycle, billionaire Iron Musk, a businessman and futurist, recently turned his attention to brain-computer interface technology.
“Any prediction about the speed of artificial intelligence development means that it will surpass humanity.” Musk said in 2016 that the solution proposed by Silicon Valley Iron Man is to add a layer of artificial intelligence to the human brain. To allow humans to communicate faster and more directly with machines, and to achieve “evolution” in another sense. The following year, Musk announced the launch of a new company: Neuralink.
After two years of low-key research, Neuralink brought its latest brain-computer interface technology in a live webcast show on July 17 this year. The system uses a robot that looks like a sewing machine to implant ultra-fine flexible electrodes into the brain to monitor neuronal activity and transmit signals to external machines for human-computer interaction. Musk expressed the hope that Neuralink can help treat brain diseases, protect and enhance the human brain, and ultimately integrate humans with artificial intelligence.
Cyberpunk is a branch of science fiction, and the plot usually revolves around the conflict between hackers, artificial intelligence, and large corporations. The release of Neuralink’s new brain-computer interface system has even sparked a discussion about the early arrival of the cyberpunk era: Will the future of human-machine symbiosis depicted in sci-fi movies such as “The Matrix” and “Purchase Hacker” be about to debut?
In this regard, Andrew Schwartz, a professor of neurobiology at the University of Pittsburgh who studies brain-computer interface, told China Newsweek that we know very little about brain science. The world depicted by science fiction writers is just a guess; within the foreseeable 20 years. If this technology can be applied to the human body, then the most practical possibility is in the medical field.
Standing on the shoulders of giants
Neuralink is not the first and not the only gold diggers in the field of brain-computer interface (BCI). As early as the 1990s, BCI has become a research hotspot. So far, the form of communication between people and machines has been limited to manual input and voice interaction. Researchers have envisaged a new way of communication between humans and humans through the brain-computer interface – direct instructions to the machine through the brain, that is, Consciousness controls the machine.
Like a wireless remote, the motor’s motor cortex directs the body’s movements. Tim Urban, a writer who specializes in interpreting complex problems with humorous styles, explains that the purpose of the brainboard interface based on the motor cortex is that when the remote controller issues some commands, the brain-computer interface can collect the command and communicate it to, for example. Prosthetics, machinery or computers. The nerves connect your motor cortex and your hands, and the brain-computer interface is responsible for connecting your motor cortex and a computer. It’s that simple.
The process of collecting and communicating brain signals involves a series of engineering problems. For example, open the invasive interface of the skull insertion electrode. Although there are advantages in detecting the high quality of neuronal signals, there are also problems such as infection risk and poor biocompatibility. In 2006, a patient with spinal cord paralysis received BCI implantation, and he could control the computer mouse and even play games. Since then, as part of scientific research, paralyzed patients have been able to control the movement of robotic arms in the laboratory.
The system they use is BrainGate, the world’s first similar brain-computer interface system developed by Brown University. Researchers implanted an array of electrodes called the Utah array into the motor cortex of the patient. When the patient wants to raise his hand or do other activities, the electrodes can detect the neurons activated by these intents and then pass the signal to the machine to complete the corresponding command.
The Utah electrode used in the BrainGate system is a set of hard needles that can be used for up to 128 electrodes. It is like using a hedgehog into the brain that is not friendly enough. This kind of material will gradually expose its drawbacks in long-term use. For example, the brain can move freely in the skull, but the needle can’t move with it. The accumulated wear and tear will eventually lead to interface damage.
Recently, according to the results of animal experiments, the most advanced electrode is the neuron pixel developed by the Belgian company Imec. It integrates 960 recording sites and can collect data of thousands of brain cells at a time, but this is only a single electrode. The breadth of the record cannot be achieved.
In comparison, the system used by Neualink has 3072 contacts on 96 electrode lines, which can transmit more data than previous brain-computer interface technology. Even better, the electrode wire is made of a thin, flexible polymer material that is soft and flexible and is only about a quarter of the diameter of a human hair. These electrode lines are like a string of pearls, except that on this line are a series of tiny electrodes and sensors that capture information from a large number of cells and send it wirelessly to a computer for analysis.
These flexible electrodes are buried in the cortex. As the brain floats, there is no need to worry about the brain tissue being scratched like the Utah needle array. Because these polymer wires are flexible enough, the displacement with the brain is also Will not wear itself. A professor in the field of biological sciences commented in an interview with The New York Times that the flexibility of the Neuralink thread is indeed an improvement, but researchers still need to prove that this electrode line can survive for a long time in the brain environment because of this Salt solutions in the environment can degrade many plastics.
Flexibility and softness also means a significant upgrade in the difficulty of implantation. In this regard, Neuralink brings a second important breakthrough – a “neurosurgical robot” that automatically inserts 6 threads (192 electrodes) per minute. This robot is very similar to a hybrid of a microscope and a sewing machine. It uses a so-called computer vision system that can evade the position of blood vessels in the brain and reduce the generation of inflammatory reactions in the brain. It works like a sewing machine and quickly and safely implants a single electrode. Into the cerebral cortex. According to media reports, the “sewing machine” robot has implanted electrodes in 19 animals, and 87% of the tests were successful.
Another tricky problem is that the signals recorded by the electrodes are very small, and the environment inside the brain is complex and there are various noises. On the night of the conference, Neuralink published an academic paper on the biopreprint paper website biorxiv, revealing more details. The article pointed out that they have developed a custom integrated circuit that can better read, filter and amplify the collected signals. The chip is also designed with a special processing unit that can pre-process each channel individually and convert the last recorded cell surface potential into a digital signal.
However, current data transfers can only be made via a wired connection. The team hopes to finally be able to wirelessly operate by implanting a sensor chip into the body. Specifically: Neuralink intends to implant sensors in four areas of the brain, three in the motor cortex, one in the somatosensory cortex, and then an external receiver behind the ear, which can be controlled by the Apple mobile app.
Some experts believe that this release reflects the high level of integrated integration of the overall solution, and many technologies have made great progress on the basis of the past. According to the MIT Science and Technology Review, flexible electrodes are not the team’s first initiative, but technology developed by Chong Xie et al. at the University of Texas at Austin. However, Neuralink solves a set of processes from implant to post-signal processing.
Cyberpunk is far from coming
Musk is good at putting ideas that seem to be in the air and pushing the commercialization of technology. Neuralink Chairman Hodak said at the press conference that at first he was not sure that the technology was a good idea, but Musk finally made him believe that it was possible. At the beginning of its establishment, Musk met with more than 1,000 people and eventually recruited well-known scholars in the fields of neuroscience, brain surgery, clinical trials, etc. to work under his command, including Vanessa Tolosa, an engineer and flexible electrode specialist at the National Laboratory of the United States. Philip Sabes, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, who is responsible for brain-computer interface algorithms. Musk also pointed out that the main motivation for this conference was to recruit and let more talents join Neuralink.
However, Neuralink is not the only player in this technology field. In fact, it faces a small number of competitors. According to the Wall Street Journal’s 2017 report, Facebook’s new secret project released recruitment information to brain-computer interface engineers and neuroscientists; the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) also plans to invest $60 million in four years to develop implantable nerves. Interface technology, the sewing robot introduced by Neuralink was also developed by the department.
Andrew Schwartz, a brain-computer interface researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, pointed out that many of the components involved in this technology are being developed at the same time, but compared to them, Neuralink’s overwhelming advantage is very real: the wallet is abundant and can effectively Advance their research. But what kind of results can be made in the end, he said that it remains to be seen.
Founded in 2017 by Musk, Neuralink is headquartered in Silicon Valley, USA and currently employs approximately 90 people. It has so far raised $158 million, of which at least $100 million comes from CEO Musk. According to documents from the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), in May this year, Neuralink completed the $39 million in the previous $51 million round of financing.
Andrew Schwartz said that the technology launched by the Musk team is mainly mechanical innovation, and it is not related to science. Similar systems in the past have proven to have the potential to help people regain mobility, but the variety of devices that are inconvenient to move limits this approach out of the lab. Now, Neuralink is innovating on the hardware, including increasing the number of neurons recorded, miniaturizing the electrodes, and wirelessly replacing the transmission line between the human and the machine, ultimately making it more likely that those who rely on such devices on a daily basis are more likely Regular use. In a nutshell, these innovations make it possible to use it on a large scale.
Andrew Hires, assistant professor of neurobiology at the University of Southern California, told China Newsweek that the solution provided by Neualink has not yet been applied to humans. If it is successfully used in humans, it will be the most advanced technology in the field. “It’s like a leap from standard definition to HDTV, but it’s still far below the level of 4K/8K Ultra HD.”
“Technological advances in this direction will strongly advance the study of brain science. Simultaneous observation and regulation of the activities of thousands of neurons at a time resolution of the order of milliseconds will likely bring about changes in the paradigm of brain science research. Attention to the study of single or a small number of neurons, to the understanding of the relationship between large-scale neural network activities and information processing and brain function.” Deputy Director of the State Key Laboratory of Pattern Recognition, Institute of Automation, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing Network Focus Yu Shan, deputy director of the laboratory, commented on this in an interview with the media.
In 2017, with the help of the Neuralink team, Tim Urban wrote a long article about the brain-computer interface. He pointed out in the article that Neuralink still faces many challenges, such as how to deal with the vast amount of information in the human brain – for ideas, hundreds of electrodes are far from enough to exchange things other than the simplest information. When it comes to the brain-computer interface that changes the world, the Neuralink team gives the number “recording one million neurons at the same time.”
When the company was first established, it was reported that the first products of Neuralink were used to treat brain diseases such as epilepsy or major depression. Wang Yijun, a researcher at the Institute of Semiconductors of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said in an interview with the media that Neuralink’s brain-computer interface system is more like a universal platform tool, which can be used to diagnose and treat nervous system diseases, and can also be used to realize communication control. Can be used for neuroscience research. It is possible to determine which region of the brain the electrode is to be implanted, depending on the particular application.
Hodak said that he hopes that one day, perhaps in the near future, Neuralink can help humans to get rid of a series of diseases, such as helping paralyzed patients to recover their mobility or helping people to listen, speak and see. The company hopes to pass the US FDA’s approval to start human clinical trials as early as next year; the team’s brain surgeon Matthew MacDougall said that safety is a very important goal, and eventually they hope that the technology is like laser eye surgery. reliable.