Here’s Everything You Need to Know about Elon Musk’s Human/AI Brain Merge

January 05, 2018

Neuralink Has Arrived

After weeks of anticipation, details on Elon Musk’s brain-computer interface company Neuralink have finally been revealed. In a detailed report on the website Wait But Why, Tim Urban recounts insights gleaned from his weeks meeting with Musk and his Neuralink team at their San Francisco headquarters. He offers an incredibly detailed and informative overview of both Musk’s latest venture and its place in humanity’s evolution, but for those of you interested in just the big picture, here’s what you really need to know about Neuralink.

Your Brain Will Get Another “Layer”

Right now, you have two primary “layers” to your brain: the limbic system, which controls things like your emotions, long-term memory, and behavior; and the cortex, which handles your complex thoughts, reasoning, and long-term planning. Musk wants his brain interface to be a third layer that will complement the other two. The weirdest thing about that goal may be that he thinks we actually already have this third layer — we just don’t have the best interface for it:

We already have a digital tertiary layer in a sense, in that you have your computer or your phone or your applications…The thing that people, I think, don’t appreciate right now is that they are already a cyborg…If you leave your phone behind, it’s like missing limb syndrome. I think people—they’re already kind of merged with their phone and their laptop and their applications and everything.

The goal of Neuralink, then, is eliminating the middleman and putting that power we currently have at our fingertips directly into our brains. Instead of one person using their phone to transmit a thought to another person (“Dinner at 8?”), the thought would just go from one brain to the other directly.

Thankfully, we’ll be able to control this completely, Musk tells Urban: “People won’t be able to read your thoughts — you would have to will it. If you don’t will it, it doesn’t happen. Just like if you don’t will your mouth to talk, it doesn’t talk.”

Musk Is Working with Some Very Smart People

Musk met with more than 1,000 people before deciding on the eight who would help him shape the future of humanity at Neuralink. He claims assembling the right team was a challenge in and of itself, as he needed to find people capable of working in a cross-disciplinary field that includes everything from brain surgery to microscopic electronics.

The crew he landed is a veritable supergroup of smarties. They have backgrounds from MIT, Duke, and IBM, and their bios include phrases like “neural dust,” “cortical physiology,” and “human psychophysics.” They’re engineers, neurosurgeons, and chip designers, and if anyone can bring Elon Musk’s vision to life, it’s them.

The Timeline For Adoption Is Hazy…

Neuralink won’t come out the gate with a BMI that transforms you into a walking computer. The first product the company will focus on releasing will be much more targeted. “We are aiming to bring something to market that helps with certain severe brain injuries (stroke, cancer lesion, congenital) in about four years,” said Musk.

I think we are about 8 to 10 years away from this being usable by people with no disability.” – Musk

The same way SpaceX was able to fund its research on reusable rockets by making deliveries to the ISS or Tesla was able to use profits from its early car sales to fund battery research, these earliest BMIs to treat diseases or the disabled will keep Neuralink afloat as it works on its truly mind-bending technologies.

As for when those technologies, the ones that allow healthy people to channel their inner telepaths, will arrive, Musk’s fairly optimistic timeline comes with several contingencies: “I think we are about 8 to 10 years away from this being usable by people with no disability…It is important to note that this depends heavily on regulatory approval timing and how well our devices work on people with disabilities.”

…Because The Hurdles are Many

Those are just two of the hurdles Neuralink faces. Elon Musk might make innovation look easy, but even going to Mars seems relatively straightforward in comparison to his plans for his latest company.

First, there are the engineering hurdles to overcome. The company has to deal with the problems of biocompatibility, wirelessness, power, and — the big one — bandwidth. To date, we’ve never put more than roughly 200 electrodes in a person’s brain at one time. When talking about a world-changing interface, the Neuralink team told Urban they were thinking something like “one million simultaneously recorded neurons.” Not only would they need to find a way to ensure that the brain could effectively communicate with that many electrodes, they also need to overcome the very practical problem of where to physically put them.

The engineering is only half the battle, though. Like Musk mentioned, regulatory approval will be a big factor in the development and adoption of Neuralink’s tech. The company also faces potential skepticism and even fear from a public that doesn’t want anyone cutting into their brains to install some high-tech machinery — according to a recent Pew survey, the public is even more worried about brain computer interfaces than gene editing. There’s also the not-entirely-unfounded fear that these computers could be hacked.

Add to all that our still very, very incomplete understanding of how the brain ticks exactly, and you can see that the Neuralink team has its work cut out for them.

Neuralink Won’t Exist in a Vacuum

Thankfully, they won’t be working to remake our minds alone — many other universities and research institutes are pushing brain interface technology forward. Facebook’s Building 8 is working on its own BCI, MIT is creating super-thin wires for use in brain implants, and other cyborg devices are already in the works to help the paralyzed walk again and the blind regain their sight. Each new development will push the field forward, and the team at Neuralink will be able to learn from the mistakes and successes of others in the field.

Just like other electric cars were on the road before Tesla came along, brain computer interfaces are not new — the tech might just need a visionary like Musk to elevate it (and us) to the next level.

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The smartphone is eventually going to die, and then things are going to get really crazy

May 28, 2017

One day, not too soon — but still sooner than you think — the smartphone will all but vanish, the way beepers and fax machines did before it.

Make no mistake: We’re still probably at least a decade away from any kind of meaningful shift away from the smartphone. (And if we’re all cyborgs by 2027, I’ll happily eat my words. Assuming we’re still eating at all, I guess.)

Yet, piece by piece, the groundwork for the eventual demise of the smartphone is being laid by Elon Musk, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon, and a countless number of startups that still have a part to play.

And, let me tell you: If and when the smartphone does die, that’s when things are going to get really weird for everybody. Not just in terms of individual products but in terms of how we actually live our everyday lives and maybe our humanity itself.

Here’s a brief look at the slow, ceaseless march toward the death of the smartphone — and what the post-smartphone world is shaping up to look like.

The short term

People think of the iPhone and the smartphones it inspired as revolutionary devices — small enough to carry everywhere, hefty enough to handle an increasingly large number of daily tasks, and packed full of the right mix of cameras and GPS sensors to make apps like Snapchat and Uber uniquely possible.

But consider the smartphone from another perspective. The desktop PC and the laptop are made up of some combination of a mouse, keyboard, and monitor. The smartphone just took that model, shrank it, and made the input virtual and touch-based.

So take, for example, the Samsung Galaxy S8, unveiled this week. It’s gorgeous with an amazing bezel-less screen and some real power under the hood. It’s impressive, but it’s more refinement than revolution.

Samsung Galaxy S8Samsung Galaxy S8.Business Insider

Tellingly, though, the Galaxy S8 ships with Bixby, a new virtual assistant that Samsung promises will one day let you control every single feature and app with just your voice. It will also ship with a new version of the Gear VR virtual reality headset, developed in conjunction with Facebook’s Oculus.

The next iPhone, too, is said to be shipping with upgrades to the Siri assistant, along with features aimed at bringing augmented reality into the mainstream.

And as devices like the Amazon Echo, the Sony PlayStation VR, and the Apple Watch continue to enjoy limited but substantial success, expect to see a lot more tech companies large and small taking more gambles and making more experiments on the next big wave in computing interfaces.

The medium term

In the medium term, all of these various experimental and first-stage technologies will start to congeal into something familiar but bizarre.

Microsoft, Facebook, Google, and the Google-backed Magic Leap are all working to build standalone augmented-reality headsets, which project detailed 3D images straight into your eyes. Even Apple is rumored to be working on this.

Microsoft’s Alex Kipman recently told Business Insider that augmented reality could flat-out replace the smartphone, the TV, and anything else with a screen. There’s not much use for a separate device sitting in your pocket or on your entertainment center if all your calls, chats, movies, and games are beamed into your eyes and overlaid on the world around you.

apple airpods in earApple’s AirPods keep the Siri virtual assistant in your ears.Hollis Johnson/Business Insider

At the same time, gadgetry like the Amazon Echo or Apple’s own AirPods become more and more important in this world. As artificial-intelligence systems like Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, Samsung’s Bixby, and Microsoft’s Cortana get smarter, there will be a rise not just in talking to computers but in having them talk back.

In other words, computers will hijack your senses, more so than they already do, with your sight and your hearing intermediated by technology. It’s a little scary. Think of what Facebook glitches could mean in a world where it doesn’t just control what you read on your phone but in what you see in the world around you.

The promise, though, is a world where real life and technology blend more seamlessly. The major tech companies promise that this future means a world of fewer technological distractions and more balance, as the physical and digital world become the same thing. You decide how you feel about that.

The really crazy future

Still, all those decade-plus investments in the future still rely on gadgetry that you have to wear, even if it’s only a pair of glasses. Some of the craziest, most forward-looking, most unpredictable advancements go even further — provided you’re willing to wait a few extra decades, that is.

This week, we got our first look at Neuralink, a new company cofounded by Musk with a goal of building computers into our brains by way of “neural lace,” a very early-stage technology that lays on your brain and bridges it to a computer. It’s the next step beyond even that blending of the digital and physical worlds, as human and machine become one.

Assuming the science works — and lots of smart people believe that it will — this is the logical endpoint of the road that smartphones started us on. If smartphones gave us access to information and augmented reality puts that information in front of us when we need it, then putting neural lace in our brains just closes the gap.

Ray KurzweilFuturist Ray Kurzweil has been predicting our cyborg futures for a long time now.Tech Insider

Musk has said this is because the rise of artificial intelligence — which underpins a lot of the other technologies, including voice assistants and virtual reality — means humans will have to augment themselves just to keep up with the machines. If you’re really curious about this idea, futurist Ray Kurzweil is the leading voice on the topic.

The idea of human/machine fusion is a terrifying one, with science-fiction writers, technologists, and philosophers alike having very good cause to ask what even makes us human in the first place. At the same time, the idea is so new that nobody really knows what this world would look like in practice.

So if and when the smartphone dies, it’ll actually be the end of an era in more ways than one. It’ll be the end of machines that we carry with us passively and the beginning of something that bridges our bodies straight into the ebb and flow of digital information. It’s going to get weird.

And yet, lots of technologists already say that smartphones give us superpowers with access to knowledge, wisdom, and abilities beyond anything nature gave us. In some ways, augmenting the human mind would be the ultimate superpower. Then again, maybe I’m just an optimist.