The implantation of chips in the human body has been a recurring topic of discussion and controversy in the digitally-technologized world for some time. Some are looking forward to a milestone in science, others smell the end of the world. Surprisingly and contrary to any unconventional thinking logic, it is not Bill Gates but his billionaire colleague Elon Musk that is the protagonist of this controversial undertaking. He has been active in brain computer research with his company Neuralink since 2016 and in 2022 the brain chips, which achieved promising results in monkeys, are to be implanted in humans for the first time.
Neuralink chips are part of the Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCI). This is a human-machine interface that allows a connection between the brain and the computer without activating the peripheral nervous system. This technology is to be used to support people with physical disabilities. For example, those affected by the locked-in syndrome (complete inability to move while remaining conscious) could communicate with the outside world despite their inability to speak, or paraplegics could walk again with the help of brain-controlled prostheses. But more on that later.
The Neuralink system consists of two elements:
- Approx. 1000 tiny plastic threads that contain electrodes. After implantation, these are located inside the brain and can recognize electrical impulses from the cranial nerves. The other way around, they could emit electrical impulses to stimulate nerve cells and thus influence processes in the head. At Neuralink, however, that is not the case for the time being.
- A radio chip that is connected to the threads and that is inserted into the top of the skull. In contrast to conventional electron encephalography, the nerve signals do not have to be transmitted via cables or huge radio units. Instead, they are evaluated directly by the coin-sized chip, which in turn only transmits the important impulses to a cell phone or computer via Bluetooth.
Due to the tiny dimensions of the electrode threads, conventional implantation would be beyond the capabilities of any neurosurgeon. To solve the problem of lack of precision, a robot was developed. This places the plastic threads including electrodes in a targeted manner in the brain without damaging blood vessels. The operation takes about 2 hours and can be done under partial anesthesia.
How do we benefit from being able to transmit the nerve impulses from certain areas of the brain to our cell phone?
Unfortunately not that much so far. BCIs deliver neutral signals, they only indicate which neuron area is activated and when. The interpretation of these signals is left to the human being. And this is exactly where research is still at the very beginning. Little is known about which neural activities are related to which movements or thoughts.
The ping-pong monkey
Although our knowledge of the brain is not yet sufficient to decode complex processes or movements such as running, a small breakthrough came in April 2021. A YouTube video that went viral shows a monkey playing the video game “Pong”. The special thing about it: the monkey has a Neuralink implant and only plays with the power of his thoughts without operating a controller. The researchers have succeeded in using electrodes to network the areas that are activated by certain hand movements. Based on their activity, the monkey’s movements can now be simulated on the controller. Even if this is more of a gimmick than a function that can be transferred to humans, this experiment gives an idea of the potential of the brain chips.
Elon Musk’s very ambitious application areas include curing blindness, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, improving memory, vision and telepathic communication from neurachip wearer to neurachip wearer. Based on a similar principle, patients with ALS or Locked In Syndrome should be able to communicate with the outside world through computers. By developing an exoskeleton that is coupled to the Neuralink chip via Bluetooth, people with paraplegia or other neuronally disabled people could regain their full range of motion. And finally – certainly a big selling point – the wearers should be able to telepathically call their Teslas.
Now we come to the aspect that everyone is waiting for as soon as the words “brain” and “chip” are used.
When Neuralink was first introduced, Elon Musk did not name the motivation to support disabled people, but to protect humanity from artificial intelligence. He wanted to give people more “bandwidth” so that we can continue to compete with machines in the future. Additional storage space, which makes implant carriers much more efficient, would, on the one hand, further accelerate technical progress, but, on the other hand, also result in a division between humans and superman. For many a dystopian notion.
Another critical point is the sensitive radio chip that could fall victim to hacker attacks. These could switch off the wearer, making him unable to move or think. Alternatively, the hackers could control and direct his movements and thoughts. One does not even want to imagine the enormous danger that threatens humanity if this power falls into the wrong hands (dictatorships, terrorism, the military).
Finally, that would be the problem with data protection. If the Neuralink team really manages to decipher and store thoughts and memories, who can guarantee that this information will not be misused? That our most intimate feelings and sensations are not passed around by the tech companies? That dictatorial governments cannot get any insight into and influence over our heads?
We are still far from the dark abysses into which the brain chip could push us. But also of the healing of many diseases from which countless people affected suffer. Regardless of how you personally position yourself towards this technological milestone, the question is not if, but when the chip will come onto the market.
Most advances have brought both a curse and a blessing. Without the atomic bomb there would be no nuclear power, without quick and easy transportation by car, airplane etc. there would be less pollution and scarcity of raw materials. Today we cannot imagine a life without Google Maps, social media or heart bypass surgery – all of which are major interventions in our psychological and physical privacy. And one day it will probably behave similarly with brain chips.
- [Online im Internet.] URL: https://neuralink.com/ [Stand 18.12.2021.]
- Elon Musk (2019) An Integrated Brain-Machine Interface Platform With Thousands of Channels. [Online im Internet.] URL: https://www.jmir.org/2019/10/e16194/ [Stand 18.12.2021.]
- Jane Wakefield (2021) Elon Musk’s Neuralink ‘shows monkey playing Pong with mind. [Online im Internet.] URL: https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-56688812 [Stand 20.12.2021.]
- Tyler Sonnemaker (2020) “Like Fitbit for the skull” – Everything about Elon Musk’s Neuralink brain chip, which he uses to cure diseases and enable telepathy. [Online im Internet.] URL: https://www.businessinsider.de/tech/neuralink-informationen-elon-musks-gehirnchip-mit-dem-er-krankheiten-heilen-und-telepathie-ermoeglichen-will/ [Stand 20.12.2021.]
- Rachel Metz (2020) Elon Musk shows off a working brain implant — in pigs. [Online im Internet.] URL: https://edition.cnn.com/2020/08/28/tech/elon-musk-neuralink/index.html [Stand 20.12.2021.]
- Eike Kühl (2020) A neural link for your thoughts. [Online im Internet.] URL: https://www.spektrum.de/news/was-kann-das-gehirn-implantat-von-neuralink-das-andere-nicht-koennen/1765066 [Stand 23.12.2021.]