Elon Musk’s Neuralink – the history behind this futuristic idea and everything you need to know about it
In order to better understand what Neuralink is and what it aims to achieve, we feel it’s important to first take a step back and have a look at the person who’s behind its conception. For those of you who have heard of him, there’s not much that needs to be said, his history and achievements speak for themselves, but to those who don’t know of him, he is called Elon Reeve Musk. He is the real life embodiment of what Marvel’s superhero Iron Man tries to personify, a true enigma attempting to bring upon numerous positive changes to our society.
He happens to be the person without whom we wouldn’t have, in the name of PayPal, a practical, online alternative to existing payment systems such as checks and money orders. And not just, he is also one of the co-founders of Tesla, Inc. (formerly known as Tesla Motors), America’s current most valuable automaker. Tesla’s endeavors don’t stop at simply innovating and massively expanding the electric cars market, but also branch out into improving energy storage technologies along with solar panel manufacturing through its subsidiary, SolarCity, where Elon Musk is Chairman. The ultimate goal – reducing our crippling reliance on fossil fuels and helping us move in the direction of sustainable energy. An energy which can be naturally replenished has long-term availability and can also meet the growing demand through practicality and improved energy efficiency.
Musk’s legacy doesn’t stop there. A few years after the dot-com boom, after securing the sale of PayPal to eBay he undertook something drastically different to Internet Startups. In this case, he ventured into aerospace engineering. Thus, some close to 15 years ago, in 2002, he founded the Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, better known today as SpaceX, with the set goal of drastically reducing space transportation costs and allowing humanity to become an interplanetary species by enabling the colonization and creation of atmosphere on Mars. When you consider that when it comes to space travel alone, there have been 4 actual, legitimate cases in history where anyone has managed to launch a rocket in space, those being made possible by China, Russia, America. There we have 3, and yes you guessed it, the 4th one? Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
Pretty lofty and diverse goals, right? So why are we telling you all this, why are we even bringing all these various projects up when the article aims to talk about Neuralink? To help answer that question, let us first bring to attention that when you look at these projects, at their core, they all share a singular in its purpose, albeit constantly evolving to keep up with the bleeding edge, goal.
The goal of ensuring humanity’s future is free from everything most poised to limit or even contrarily stifle through belated obsolescence our potential growth or even bring about further negative projections for what is to come.
Moving on, in renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s interview with Elon Musk from the StarTalk Radio episode “The Future of Humanity with Elon Musk”, it becomes clear that after Musk managed to secure his financials through the sale of Zip2, an early cross between Yellow Pages and Google Maps, he used most of the money to later become involved in the making of PayPal, eventually selling that to Ebay and walking away with one hundred and eighty million dollars (180, 000, 000$). Which allegedly helped him ease into a sort of “psychological-philosophical anchor” and also a baseline, removing the feeling of worry when thinking of how to help bring more of his visions come closer to reality. When asked in the same interview about which industries he would direct his focus to first after hitting that milestone of financial security, whether it be to the automotive industry or maybe if he’d had thoughts of going into space exploration instead, Elon answers like this;
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“When you are starting out in college, in your freshman and sophomore year, you have these sort of sophomoric philosophical wanderings. And I tried to think of ok, what are the things, that seem to me that would most affect the future of humanity?
There were really five things, three of which that I thought would be interesting to be involved in. And the three that I thought would definitely be positive: the internet, sustainable energy – both production and consumption, and space exploration, more specifically the extension of life beyond Earth.
Though I never thought I would actually be involved in that, it was something I’d thought would be important in the abstract. But not something I would ever have an option to be involved in.
The fourth one was artificial intelligence and the fifth one was rewriting human genetics.
These are just the five things I thought would most affect the future of humanity.”
As you can see, he’s someone whose sole aim is the continued betterment of the future prospects of our race, a true sculptor of the modern day. Very few else would have the vision and drive to actually achieve goals such as the spectacular launching of an actual reusable, world’s first-of-its-kind rocket in space indeed.
However, not a lot of encouraging information has been given concerning the last 2 important to Musk and, by extension, to humanity points of interest, specifically artificial intelligence and the rewriting of the human genome. In past comments that he’s he’s made, it is clear that as far as genetic reprogramming goes, the thing is that, worldwide, geneticists have agreed on not trying to reprogram human DNA.
Turns out, the problem he’s faced with is more on the moral side of the spectrum, rather than it being a technical battle he can’t win, so that’s a different kind of issue he and his team are yet to figure out how to overcome.
Nonetheless, Elon Musk happens to show great concern for Artificial Intelligence, its future, and especially by our working to bring about Superintelligent AI (ASI), saying that we are “summoning the demon”, and AI safety represents one of the three (3) things he thinks about the most.
We believe that with Elon Musk’s latest undertaking, namely the heading of Neuralink, the 3rd company in which he is chief executive officer, the first steps to overcoming some of the fears for the future that we are about to face have been made. First of all, on the topic of consciousness, Must is convinced that human-level consciousness is something of a black-and-white thing, that it is unique to us and it is akin to a switch that simply turns on at some point in the process of evolution and no other animal species but ours share it. On the thought whether or not there exists smarter extra-terrestrial life, his point of view comes down to us simply being weak computers, and anything smarter than us would simply be a more powerful computer and not something we couldn’t even perceive because it isn’t at the same level of consciousness as we are.
Therefore a lot of what Neuralink tries to do comes down to removing our “bottlenecks”.
Let us first explain what a bottleneck represents in this example. Literally interpreted, a bottleneck refers to the top narrow part of a bottle, however, in engineering, a bottleneck specifies a phenomenon wherein the performance or the capacity of an entire system is limited by a single or small number of its components or resources. Imagine draining a glass bottle of water, you’d turn it upside down and the water would only flow as fast as the size of the bottle’s neck allows it to, while if a bottle with the same capacity were to be shaped like closed cylinder, with a removable top/bottom piece serving as its bottleneck, the water’s flow rate wouldn’t be affected negatively.
Humans have similar inbuilt “bottlenecks” that we are not even aware of. We will focus on the ones relating to our mind for the purposes of this article. For example, we are limited to learning new information by how fast we can “download it to our brain”, and what that process entails, such as reading new books, finding sources, and most importantly – the brain works like an encoder/decoder of information. We are left with having to learn how to understand the new information flow through creating a model that works.
Math in that regard is a great example of how our brains can be viewed as decoders. The language of mathematics allows someone, once he has a decent enough understanding of it, to view various phenomena in nature in a more abstract manner. Your brain knows that if you throw a ball with a specific curvature and using a set amount of strength it will hit a target some distance away. You just understand how to do it and calculate all the needed variables in your mind. But what if you had to write that formula down? You would need to first learn how to encode the information that you receive with your senses in a particular format of code you instinctively understand, to another one – in this case, the language of math. That’s where you have to first be able to understand that language and go through the process of writing it down on paper, then testing it for error to make sure we haven’t made a mistake and all of those are time-consuming tasks.
But notice how the problem here isn’t that we can’t make the calculations, we just can’t convert the information to another format. When we read a task, we are in the process of translating the received message into a format our brains can understand, by means of an already formed for the purpose matrix. A calculator, for example, has no such limitations, it can understand the code.
A similar example would be our language, to understand another human who doesn’t speak the language you speak, one of you has to learn the other’s language, then encode his thoughts into that language, speak the words, so that the two (2) of you may communicate through the same interface and format. All the same, that in and of itself also induces certain limitations, as you cannot convey a concept perfectly through words alone, you can only relay what you mean on a surface level.
Worthwhile noting is that while we may be able to learn how to do something pretty quickly, we don’t retain the ability to do it with the same efficiency for a long period of time, because it is not something categorized as a repetitive, or needed, behavioral pattern and therefore is deemed by the brain as unnecessary for the long-term. Our brain just concludes it is not part of a routine that we have the need to adjust to. Nature simply follows the path of least resistance. Therefore you also need to repeat something for a decently long time window. Why?
In order to truly force it into reaching what is referred to in psychology as the fourth stage of competence, namely unconscious competence, a state in which the skill you’ve practiced becomes “second nature” to you. But before we reach that, we have to go through the other steps of the journey to learning a new skill – unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, and conscious competence.
Like learning to drive a car, at first you are slow to react and laser focused on everything, but it is still difficult to see what’s happening around you. Good news though, despite the early struggle, eventually you can even talk to other passengers, listen to music while changing gears and also keeping an eye on the road. All at the same time! And that is part of the bottleneck that we experience here.
Elon Musk’s latest company, Neuralink Corp, aims to bridge the gap between humans and computers and minimize the bottleneck that each of us, with our amazing mass of 86 billion neurons suffers from, in about 8 to 10 years time, through linking our brains with computers via a super high bandwidth, cloud-based solution.
How does he aim to achieve it? Essentially it is another tool we can have at our disposal, similar to how we can grab a hammer if we have to drive a nail or crack a nut, or can put on clothes to protect us from the cold, since we haven’t developed enough fur, or how we use guns or knives to protect ourselves when we don’t have claws or have developed other means of natural defenses. In a nutshell, it intends to bring about an extension of ourselves which serves as means of mitigating various drawbacks in our evolutionary development through technology.
Since our civilization has been forming for many thousands of years, we are standing on the shoulders of giants, and what we’ve learned over the years has been, with different success, passed down as information through the generations. We’ve done our best to retain it so that future humans can be better equipped with the much-needed knowledge of how to better deal with the world.
However, a lot of that information has also been lost or is difficult to get our hands on. Also, what people hold a wide belief in, as history has shown, is taken at face value. Without critical thought questioning our findings. Recent examples include how people used to believe the Earth was flat, or that we were at the center of everything – the more well-known a piece of information is and the less likely it is to be disproved, the more likely for it to become dogma, something akin to a “universal truth” across all those who preach it.
But there are also beneficial sides to that, since when we combine language with technology, we can form hypotheses, test them and eventually reach theories that await further new information to disprove them, but the best thing to take away from that is that as time goes by, we become less ignorant of the real truths about what goes on around us. The faster that the whole process runs, the better for us.
Information, with time, has and is becoming more and more freely available, and we’ve had an abundance of new choices and venues to explore compared to even people from 25 years ago. With the development of the Internet and how it has become universal, that’s given rise to unthought of before inventions that would’ve otherwise never seen the light of day.
Of course, everything really took off after the Internet came to be. It gave the already quite well-developed human race another huge means of communication and exchange of information, a tool that through an interface can bring you anything around the world to you.
What Neuralink wants to, at first, create is a Brain-Machine-Interface (BMI) connected with the brain. It is referred to by one of the developers as “micron-sized devices” co-working with the brain, aiming to bring to market something that at first would help with certain severe brain injuries (stroke, cancer lesion, congenital) in about four (4) years time.
Some of the major hurdles they are faced with lie mostly in a couple of fields. The bandwidth required for the BMI’s to work and the implementation of the implantation of the BMI’s. Currently, we are able to record and eventually understand information that’s coming from far too few simultaneously recorded neurons, and we need way higher bandwidth for this idea to even be close to possible successful execution, so that’s one of the issues. The other issue I mentioned is the implementation of the device itself, which if you’d have to undergo a skull-opening surgery to be able to benefit from this technology, it may prove too expensive and limited for any hopes of starting any practical, wide-scale implementation process.
Once these and all other issues are ironed out, we are looking at a tool which is as much part of you as everything else is, gives you much greater control over information, and everything that you are will not any longer be limited to just your body parts, no. We’d be able to wirelessly communicate with the cloud, with computers and with the brains of everyone else who is okay with having a similar interface installed. Imagine not having anything standing between you and any concept you wish to understand, not having to deal with any bottlenecks when it comes to receiving or sending out information. We’d move to a new era beyond the Information Era and literally upgrade the way we use one of our oldest creations – communication – linking humanity’s individual brains into a super-brain.
Of course, we are still far away from that, there are many unknowns raising further questions of the overall odds of success, it’s something that when we think about it, it’s simply challenging to wrap your head around, but then you remember that it is none other than Elon Musk who is at the helm of this development and with him having set his sights on accelerating the advent of a whole-brain interface, we are very optimistic for the future!