After First Human Receives Wireless Brain Chip, Here's A Look At The Tech Enabling Computer Control Through Thoughts

Karan Kamble

Feb 06, 2024, 03:13 PM | Updated Feb 07, 2024, 08:24 PM IST

The promise of the Neuralink tech is that anyone would be able to control a computer or mobile device “just by thinking” alone
The promise of the Neuralink tech is that anyone would be able to control a computer or mobile device “just by thinking” alone

Neuralink, a company founded by Elon Musk, implanted a wireless brain chip in a human being for the first time on 29 January.

The first human to receive the implant was “recovering well,” Musk said on his social platform X the next day, adding that initial results showed “promising neuron spike detection.”

The billionaire innovator also revealed the name of his first Neuralink product — “Telepathy.”

The promise of Telepathy is that anyone would be able to control a computer or mobile device “just by thinking” alone; that means being able to connect with others, browsing the web, and even playing games through thought.

Seeing it first and foremost as a breakthrough medical application, Musk plans to extend the benefits of this technology initially to “those who have lost the use of their limbs.”

“Imagine if Stephen Hawking could communicate faster than a speed typist or auctioneer. That is the goal,” he said on X.

In the long run, however, Musk wants to achieve a symbiosis with artificial intelligence (AI) through Neuralink. It would push AI use, currently in vogue, to a whole new and unfamiliar level.

The constraining factor in this highly ambitious case would be the "bandwidth" — how quickly the brain and computer interact, with the limit set only by the mind. The company seems determined to up the bandwidth bar over time.

While the prospect of getting a chip inserted into your brain is the stuff of science-fiction nightmare, often carrying the connotation of being controlled by another person or entity, there’s cause for optimism in Neuralink’s technology.

At the heart of it is a “brain-machine interface” (BMI), or a brain-computer interface (BCI) if the machine is a computer, which seeks to serve critical unmet medical needs of particular patients, especially those who have lost vision, motor control, or speech, among other abilities.

A BMI or BCI is essentially a system that decodes intended movement signals from brain activity to control external devices such as computers. It acts like a stand-in for the outside world and carries a tremendous benefit for people with brain disorders.

“If you survive cancer and heart disease, the odds are that you will have some brain-related disorder, like Alzheimer’s or dementia, and if you don’t, friends and family will, for sure. I think unless we have some sort of brain-machine interface that can solve brain ailments of all kinds, whether it’s an accident or congenital or any kind of brain-related disorder or spinal disorder — if you know somebody who has broken their neck, broken their spine — we can solve that with a chip,” Musk said at the Neuralink launch in July 2019.

By way of a chip, Musk’s company intends to record from and selectively stimulate as many neurons as possible across various areas of the brain. Their endeavour is to “increase by orders of magnitude the number of neurons you can read from and write to in safe, long-lasting ways.”

Neuralink wants to take the entire operation to a level where one arrives for a brain chip implant, a precise robotic surgeon gets to work on the patient, and the person subsequently walks away with a chip in the brain within a span of a few hours. The idea is to “make it as simple and automated as LASIK,” a laser eye surgery that corrects vision problems.

There are broadly four major components to the Neuralink system — threads, robots, electronics, and algorithms.

Threads are highly flexible, ultra-thin film arrays on which the experimental device, or “the implant,” is microfabricated. They are so tiny that they are only about a few red blood cells wide. Threads are said to be key to minimising damage during implantation.

The very thing to be implanted, dubbed the “N1” implant — which one can think of as Neuralink’s iPhone 1-equivalent for the brain-computer interface world — will record neural activity through 1,024 electrodes distributed across 64 threads.

So fine are these threads that human hands, however skilled, will not be able to manoeuvre them. Hence, the need for the surgical robot “R1,” the second of the four major components.

Under the supervision of a human neurosurgeon, the R1 will peer through a microscope and, thanks to an ultra-sharp needle that’s thinner than human hair, precisely grasp, insert, and release the electrodes in the brain, carefully bypassing any blood vessels along the way. The operation will involve a 2 millimetre (mm) incision, not even needing a stitch at the end, as per Musk.

After the surgery, the implant will hide under the skin and, therefore, be invisible to others. As the interface to the chip is wireless, no wires will stick out of the brain, thankfully.

After the N1 is put into the brain tissue, it will naturally be subjected to the physiological conditions of the human body. For that reason, it is sealed tight within a biocompatible enclosure that is designed to withstand it.

As for the chips, batteries, and electronics: a small battery powers the N1. The battery can be charged wirelessly from anywhere, thanks to a “compact, inductive charger.”

The chips and electronics will process neural signals, which will then be transmitted to the Neuralink application for further decoding of movement intention from the signals recorded, thereby allowing control of a computer through thoughts.

The need for an implant in the brain rather than, say, an external wearable comes from Neuralink’s focus on “spikes” or action potentials.

“You see, your brain uses electricity to communicate, its neurons talking to each other by sending tiny blips of voltage down a gossamer thin cable. We neuroscientists call that blip “the spike”,” writes Mark Humphries, Chair in Computational Neuroscience at the University of Nottingham.

For these spikes, “you’ll have to be under the skull,” Max Hodak, the then-president of Neuralink said at the launch event in 2019, adding: “There is no wearable that’s going to get you spikes, it’s a physics constraint.”

Over the years, Neuralink has demonstrated its technology progressively in animals — pigs, sheep, monkeys.

An initial Neuralink device was implanted in the brain of a pig named Gertrude in 2020. The device was placed in that part of the brain which processed signals from the pig’s snout, its primary natural tool for exploring its environment. The device’s demonstration involved recording and transmitting somatosensory (touch) signals in the pig as its snout got to work. (Neurons in the somatosensory cortex respond to touch.)

The most-watched Neuralink video shows Pager, a nine-year-old macaque monkey, playing MindPong with his Neuralink. In a game of pong, Pager is shown to control his paddle on the right side of the screen by simply thinking about moving his hand up or down. He is even able to adapt to the increasing difficulty levels of the game (higher speeds).

The over 2,000 electrodes implanted in Pager’s brain, specifically in parts of the motor cortex, which coordinates the hand and arm movements, enables the monkey to play the game entirely of his own volition. He is able to control the cursor on the screen with decoded neural activity.

“It’s not magic. The reason Neuralink works is because it’s recording and decoding electrical signals from the brain,” the video explains.

In 2022, Neuralink trained a monkey named Sake in “telepathic typing” — he was able to move the cursor on the screen to the highlighted key with just his mind.

In early 2024, the action has moved to humans.

Just months earlier, in November 2023, Neuralink’s first clinical trial, called the PRIME Study, was unveiled. Short for “Precise Robotically IMplanted Brain-Computer InterfacE,” PRIME will be a test of Neuralink’s experimental device in human subjects. The device trial will last approximately six years.

The company has been seeking volunteers for the study since September 2023 after receiving regulatory and medical approval; people living with quadriplegia from a spinal cord injury or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) have been encouraged to apply.

The study will see the R1 robot surgically place the N1 implant in the part of the brain that controls movement intention. Participants will then provide feedback based on their use of the implant and the user app to control a computer.

On 29 January, the chip was implanted in a human brain for the first time. Now the wait is on for some initial results.

“We are confident that someone who has basically no other interface to the outside world would be able to control their phone better than someone who has working hands,” Musk has said.

The first two applications that Neuralink is targeting in humans are restoring vision and enabling someone, with little to no ability to work their muscles, to operate their phone faster than someone who has working hands.

The promise of Neuralink is that even someone who has never had vision before — say, they were born blind — would be able to see for the first time ever using Neuralink.

This would be possible by stimulating neural activity in the brain by injecting current through each of the over 1,000 channels on the device. The claim is that this would generate a visual image in the brain directly.

The technology will also apparently allow, for instance, taking signals from the motor cortex and — say, if someone has a broken neck — bridge those signals to Neuralink devices located in the spinal cord.

“As miraculous as it may sound, we are confident that it is possible to restore full-body functionality to someone who has a severed spinal cord,” Musk has said.

Although a breakthrough technology, Neuralink follows decades of brain technology advancement — from the cochlear implant of 1957 to the Utah array in 1991 to responsive neurostimulation for epilepsy in 2013.

Still, this feels like only the beginning of a revolutionary journey for brain-computer interfaces. Over time, it might just change the course of human history, stretching human capability to previously unknown levels.

Oh, and there's that other thing about fusing AI and consciousness. Maybe that's for another time.

Karan Kamble writes on science and technology. He occasionally wears the hat of a video anchor for Swarajya's online video programmes.

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