top of page
  • Adrien Book

Neuralink Will Not Save Us

In the realm of science fiction, the idea of melding the human brain with advanced technology has long been tantalizing. Today, this notion is becoming closer to reality through the concept of “Brain-Computer Interfaces” (often referred to as BCIs). The idea is simple : translate brain signals into physical outputs. Among the most notable ventures in this field is Neuralink, co-founded by our Lord & Saviour Elon Musk. His (overhyped) company is developing implantable (invasive) brain–machine interfaces, with a chip implemented directly into the user’s brain. But there are also plenty of non-invasive methods being trialled.

Mastering neural signalling (which serves as the brain’s communication method) would allow us to create a direct link between the brain and a variety of external devices such as phones, cars, robots… the list goes on. Imagine being able to move a cursor, send a text message, or do a Google search with just a thought. This will be revolutionary in many (if not most) fields. However, as with any groundbreaking technology, brain-computer interfaces present a complex mix of benefits and challenges that necessitate careful examination.

The technology is coming… are we ready for it?

Brain-Computer Interface negatives

What are the benefits of Brain-Computer Interface?

Of course, it’s easy to imagine that we’d use the ability to communicate with our mind to improve our ability to produce and consume smut. And that will happen. In fact, it’s one of the key reasons for the Internet’s existence. But there are many, many better potential applications, which may even make the world a better place.

Accelerating Brain Research

BCIs will be (are?) invaluable in deepening our understanding of the brain. By decoding and modulating neural signals (lots of science to unpack there), they provide insights into the neural underpinnings of cognition, emotion, and behavior.

This knowledge is crucial for developing new treatments for neurological and psychiatric conditions. For example, Brain-Computer Interfaces can aid in the rehabilitation of stroke victims or those with spinal cord injuries by re-establishing connections between the brain and muscles. This technology can also help mind-control prosthetic limbs / wheelchairs, offering a more natural and intuitive user experience.

BCIs can be used to monitor and regulate brain functions, too. This is beneficial when treating mental health disorders like depression or PTSD. By monitoring brain activity, BCIs identify patterns associated with these conditions and are able to adjust brain activity to alleviate symptoms (note: this is already being used for people suffering from seizures).

Pioneering inclusive forms of communication

Elon Musk once said he wanted to use his company to put a “Fitbit in your skull”. Classic idiot stuff. I believe we should aim a little higher.

More specifically, Brain-Computer Interfaces have the potential to change the lives of people with disabilities. We could allow individuals with conditions like paralysis, ALS, or muscular disorders to regain communication abilities or control prosthetic limbs. Simply by decoding neural activity from the cortex using machine learning, and using that signal to trigger an action.

Research has shown significant advancements in this area. For instance, a 2023 study highlighted how a BCI enabled a paralyzed individual to type by decoding neural activity associated with hand movements (ie: the person typed by thinking about what they wanted to type). Companies like Paradromics, Blackrock Neurotech, and Synchron are already working on devices for paralyzed people. With 1.7 percent of Americans living with some form of paralysis, this could be a game changer, and lead to a more inclusive society.

Augmenting Human Abilities

Beyond communication, BCIs promise to restore or even enhance cognitive and sensory capabilities. If we’re able to interpret the brain’s electrical and chemical signals, we can also recreate them, thus removing (some of) the body’s limits. Provide visual or auditory sensory inputs directly to the brain in individuals who have lost these senses, for starters. There’s even been headway in recreating a sense of touch in prosthetics.

On top of the obvious implications for the differently abled, there are also use cases for those not suffering from any ailments. By interfacing directly with the brain, Brain-Computer devices will help process information faster, access stored information more efficiently, simplify communication... Imagine augmenting memory retrieval, accelerating learning, or experiencing sensory inputs beyond the conventional five senses. This enhancement could lead to unprecedented advancements in education, professional training, and even daily life experiences.

Of course, the military will be all over it (and is not doubt all over it already). But let’s enjoy the idea before we learn of the nightmares they are no doubt creating.

Transforming Entertainment and Interaction

More speculative BCIs applications include playing video games, manipulating virtual reality, or even receiving text messages or videos directly into one’s brain, bypassing the need for a screen.

This will make for much more immersive entertainment experiences. For gamers and virtual reality enthusiasts, this could mean brain-to-game interfaces that adjust to a player’s emotional state or intentions, offering a more engaging and personalized experience. It can even mean playing games with (only) one’s mind. For VR proponents… well, it’s a whole new paradigm.

And yes, there will be smut. There is always smut.

What are the challenges of Brain-Computer Interface?

Even if brain-computer interfaces deliver on all they promise, there will still be many issues to tackle. So many, in fact, that it is likely to make us rethink the technology’s potential for mass adoption.

Addressing privacy and security questions

The idea of unauthorized individuals or entities reading our innermost thoughts feels invasive in a unique way. As such, BCIs’ ability to read and interpret brain activity will raise significant ethical and privacy concerns.

Training such interfaces requires machine learning (AI if you’re nasty) to work well. Massive amounts of neural data is needed to train algorithms properly. And that data need needs to be stored somewhere. If it’s stored, it can be accessed. It’s not hard to imagine hackers gaining access to someone’s thoughts and leveraging them for public humiliation, or blackmail.

Recognizing these risks, it is imperative for companies developing BCIs to not only ensure that neural data is secured and encrypted, but also to prioritize obtaining explicit data collection consent from users. Given the technology’s potential, implementing robust cybersecurity measures in BCIs transcends technical necessity; it becomes a cornerstone in the protection of personal integrity.

Navigating murky ethical waters

Any futuristic technology raises several ethical questions. This one is no exception.

For example : what is the degree of agency a BCI should afford its users? Can some actions be forbidden? To what extent should a BCI user be accountable for actions undertaken via the device (after all, someone else might hack the device)? What about the manufacturer? These devices are a lot less precise that our brains, what if they hurt someone? Should there be limitations on how BCIs can be used to alter or influence a person’s thoughts or emotions? Should employers or educational institutions be allowed to require BCIs for enhancing productivity or learning?

The advent of BCIs also raises concerns regarding social inequality. High costs and access disparities could lead to a scenario where only certain sections of society benefit from these enhancements, potentially widening the gap between the “neuro-enhanced” and others. This scenario poses profound questions about equity and social justice.

All of these questions (and more) will need answers faster than we think. Best to start prepare our answers already.

Considering health and psychology implications

The way interfaces interact with the intricate workings of the human mind must be approached with caution.

The implantation of invasive BCI devices carries inherent medical risks like infection or brain tissue damage. Even non-invasive techniques may pose health concerns, such as the effects of long-term exposure to electromagnetic fields. BCIs have also be shown to lead to high cognitive fatigue. Who knows what long-terms implications will be.

The psychological impact of BCIs, especially in the long term, also remains largely unexplored. Questions around personal identity, changes in cognitive functions (BCIs have also be shown to lead to high cognitive fatigue), or mental health consequences need comprehensive research. In fact, it’s crucial that ongoing research continuously monitors and addresses all potential health impacts. No one will use this technology otherwise.

 

Elon Musk recently got FDA approval for Neuralink, and human trials will shortly begin. Given his past behaviour and the technology’s many issues, I’m not sure I will ever be willing to give whatever he offers a try (also, dead monkeys).

Thankfully, there are many more companies, and many more ways to make the brain communicate with the world. As BCIs continue to evolve, balancing their immense potential with their inherent risks will be crucial. This requires not just technological innovation but also ethical guidance, legal regulation, and a commitment to universal access. The future of BCIs should be shaped not solely by what is possible technologically, but also by what is beneficial and just for society at large.

Good luck out there.

 

This article was originally written for wearedevelopers.com, Europe’s developer-focused job platform.

Comments


You may also like :

Thanks for subscribing!

Get the Insights that matter

Subscribe to get the latest on AI, innovative business models, corporate strategy, retail trends, and more. 

No spam. Ever.

Let's get to know each other better

  • LinkedIn
  • Twitter
  • Instagram
  • Buy Me A Coffee
bottom of page