This is usually how info moves through the nervous system—chemical information sent in the tiny gap between neurons triggers electrical information to pass through the neuron—but sometimes, in situations when the body needs to move a signal extra quickly, neuron-to-neuron connections can themselves be electric. Part of the reason for this large range is that another type of cell in the nervous system—a Schwann cell—acts like a super nurturing grandmother and constantly wraps some types of axons in layers of fat blankets called myelin sheath.
Like this takes a second to start : You know how sometimes you learn a new skill and you get pretty good at it, and then the next day you try again and you suck again? Repetition caused chemicals to adjust, which helped you improve, but the next day the chemicals were back to normal so the improvement went away. But then if you keep practicing, you eventually get good at something in a lasting way. Neurons have shifted shape and location and strengthened or weakened various connections in a way that has built a hard-wired set of pathways that know how to do that skill.
Babies are the neuroplasticity superstars, but neuroplasticity remains throughout our whole lives, which is why humans can grow and change and learn new things. Your brain will have physically built the changes into a new habit. Altogether, there are around billion neurons in the brain that make up this unthinkably vast network—similar to the number of stars in the Milky Way and over 10 times the number of people in the world. Around 15 — 20 billion of those neurons are in the cortex, and the rest are in the animal parts of your brain surprisingly, the random cerebellum has more than three times as many neurons as the cortex.
White matter is made up primarily of wiring—axons carrying information from somas to other somas or to destinations in the body. White matter is white because those axons are usually wrapped in myelin sheath, which is fatty white tissue. There are two main regions of gray matter in the brain—the internal cluster of limbic system and brain stem parts we discussed above, and the nickel-thick layer of cortex around the outside. The big chunk of white matter in between is made up mostly of the axons of cortical neurons.
The cortex is like a great command center, and it beams many of its orders out through the mass of axons making up the white matter beneath it. Greg A. Dunn and Dr. Brian Edwards. Check out the distinct difference between the structure of the outer layer of gray matter cortex and the white matter underneath it click to view in high res :. The nervous system is divided into two parts: the central nervous system —your brain and spinal cord—and the peripheral nervous system —made up of the neurons that radiate outwards from the spinal cord into the rest of the body.
Most types of neurons are interneurons —neurons that communicate with other neurons. Interneurons are mostly contained to the brain. The two other kinds of neurons are sensory neurons and motor neurons —those are the neurons that head down into your spinal cord and make up the peripheral nervous system. These neurons can be up to a meter long. Remember our two strips?
These strips are where your peripheral nervous system originates. From the spinal cord, they head out to all parts of your body. Each part of your skin is lined with nerves that originate in the somatosensory cortex. A nerve , by the way, is a few bundles of axons wrapped together in a little cord. The fly touches your skin and stimulates a bunch of sensory nerves. The axon terminals in the nerves have a little fit and start action potential-ing, sending the signal up to the brain to tell on the fly.
The signals head into the spinal cord and up to the somas in the somatosensory cortex. The particular somas in your motor cortex that connect to the muscles in your arm then start action potential-ing, sending the signals back into the spinal cord and then out to the muscles of the arm. The axon terminals at the end of those neurons stimulate your arm muscles, which constrict to shake your arm to get the fly off by now the fly has already thrown up on your arm , and the fly whose nervous system now goes through its own whole thing flies off.
So it seems so far like we do kind of actually understand the brain, right? But then why did that professor ask that question— If everything you need to know about the brain is a mile, how far have we walked in this mile? You know how we totally get how an individual computer sends an email and we totally understand the broad concepts of the internet, like how many people are on it and what the biggest sites are and what the major trends are—but all the stuff in the middle—the inner workings of the internet—are pretty confusing?
And you know how economists can tell you all about how an individual consumer functions and they can also tell you about the major concepts of macroeconomics and the overarching forces at play—but no one can really tell you all the ins and outs of how the economy works or predict what will happen with the economy next month or next year? The brain is kind of like those things. We get the little picture—we know all about how a neuron fires.
And we get the big picture—we know how many neurons are in the brain and what the major lobes and structures control and how much energy the whole system uses. But the stuff in between—all that middle stuff about how each part of the brain actually does its thing? What really makes it clear how confounded we are is hearing a neuroscientist talk about the parts of the brain we understand best.
Neuralink and the Brain’s Magical Future
Like the visual cortex. The visual cortex has very nice anatomical function and structure. When you look at it, you literally see a map of the world. And when you look in the visual cortex, you see that there are roughly different maps. And the motor cortex, another one of the best-understood areas of the brain, might be even more difficult to understand on a granular level than the visual cortex. So each brain has a unique code with which it talks to the muscles in the arm and hand.
The neuroplasticity that makes our brains so useful to us also makes them incredibly difficult to understand—because the way each of our brains works is based on how that brain has shaped itself, based on its particular environment and life experience. And again, those are the areas of the brain we understand the best. But somehow, none of this is why building effective brain-computer interfaces is so hard, or so daunting. What makes BMIs so hard is that the engineering challenges are monumental. This is Bok. As a way to thank you, we want to show you all the amazing things we were able to build because of your invention.
Bok might also be surprised that in a world run by fancy machines, the people who made all the machines are walking around with the same biological bodies that Bok and his friends walk around with. How can that be? This is why brain-machine interfaces—a subset of the broader field of neural engineering, which itself is a subset of biotechnology—are such a tantalizing new industry. There are many kinds of potential brain-machine interface sometimes called a brain-computer interface that will serve many different functions.
But everyone working on BMIs is grappling with either one or both of these two questions:. These two things are happening naturally in your brain all the time. Right now, your eyes are making a specific set of horizontal movements that allow you to read this sentence. All the BMI industry wants to do is get in on the action. At first, this seems like maybe not that difficult a task? The brain is just a jello ball, right? And the cortex—the part of the brain in which we want to do most of our recording and stimulating—is just a napkin, located conveniently right on the outside of the brain where it can be easily accessed.
Inside the cortex are around 20 billion firing neurons—20 billion oozy little transistors that if we can just learn to work with, will give us an entirely new level of control over our life, our health, and the world. Neurons are small, but we know how to split an atom. We can do this. But only when you understand what actually goes on in the brain do you realize why this is probably the hardest human endeavor in the world.
So before we talk about BMIs themselves, we need to take a closer look at what the people trying to make BMIs are dealing with here. It would take you about 25 minutes to walk around the perimeter. And the brain as a whole would now fit snugly inside a two block by two block square—just about the size of Madison Square Garden this works in length and width, but the brain would be about double the height of MSG. I chose 1,X as our multiplier for a couple reasons.
One is that we can all instantly convert the sizes in our heads. Every millimeter of the actual brain is now a meter. And in the much smaller world of neurons, every micron is now an easy-to-conceptualize millimeter. So we could walk up to 29th street, to the edge of our giant cortex napkin, and easily look at what was going on inside those two meters of thickness. On our scale, that makes a soma 1 — 1. A marble. The volume of the whole cortex is in the ballpark of , cubic millimeters, and in that space are about 20 billion somas.
That means an average cubic millimeter of cortex contains about 40, neurons. So there are 40, marbles in our cubic meter box. If we divide our box into about 40, cubic spaces, each with a side of 3cm or about a cubic inch , it means each of our soma marbles is at the center of its own little 3cm cube, with other somas about 3cm away from it in all directions.
Okay not too crazy so far. But the soma is only a tiny piece of each neuron. Radiating out from each of our marble-sized somas are twisty, branchy dendrites that in our scaled-up brain can stretch out for three or four meters in many different directions, and from the other end an axon that can be over meters long when heading out laterally to another part of the cortex or as long as a kilometer when heading down into the spinal cord and body.
Each of them only about a millimeter thick, these cords turn the cortex into a dense tangle of electrical spaghetti. Each neuron has synaptic connections to as many as 1,—sometimes as high as 10,—other neurons. With around 20 billion neurons in the cortex, that means there are over 20 trillion individual neural connections in the cortex and as high as a quadrillion connections in the entire brain.
In our cubic meter alone, there will be over 20 million synapses. To further complicate things, not only are there many spaghetti strands coming out of each of the 40, marbles in our cube, but there are thousands of other spaghetti strings passing through our cube from other parts of the cortex. The voltages of each neuron would be constantly changing, as many as hundreds of times per second. And the tens of millions of synapse connections in our cube would be regularly changing sizes, disappearing, and reappearing.
Here are some common types of glial cell: And how many glial cells are in the cortex? About the same number as there are neurons. Finally, there are the blood vessels. Nothing close to this scale of brain mapping has ever been done. In the image, E is the complete brain snippet, and F—N show the separate components that make up E.
And the brain-machine interface engineers need to figure out what the microscopic somas buried in that millimeter are saying, and other times, to stimulate just the right somas to get them to do what the engineers want. Good luck with that. Our 1,X brain that also happens to be a nice flat napkin. In fact, less than a third of the cortex napkin is up on the surface of the brain—most is buried inside the folds. Also, engineers are not operating on a bunch of brains in a lab. The brain is covered with all those Russian doll layers, including the skull—which at 1,X would be around seven meters thick.
The 1,X game also hammers home the sheer scope of the brain. And if you made the trek—which would take over hours of brisk walking—at any point you could pause and look at the cube you happened to be passing by and it would have all of this complexity inside of it. All of this is currently in your brain. The long-term goal is to have all three of your cakes and eat them all.
Instead of using x-rays, MRIs use magnetic fields along with radio waves and other signals to generate images of the body and brain. Like this: Because when areas of the brain become more active, they use more energy, so they need more oxygen—so blood flow increases to the area to deliver that oxygen. Blood flow indirectly indicates where activity is happening. And because fMRI can scan through the whole brain, results are 3-dimensional:. The big drawback is resolution. The brain has a volume of about 1,,mm 3 , so a high-resolution fMRI scan divides the brain into about one million little cubes.
So what the fMRI is showing you, at best, is the average blood flow drawn in by each group of 40, or so neurons. The even bigger problem is temporal resolution. Dating back almost a century, EEG electroencephalography puts an array of electrodes on your head. You know, this whole thing: EEGs record electrical activity in different regions of the brain, displaying the findings like this: EEG graphs can uncover information about medical issues like epilepsy, track sleep patterns, or be used to determine something like the status of a dose of anesthesia.
And unlike fMRI, EEG has pretty good temporal resolution, getting electrical signals from the brain right as they happen—though the skull blurs the temporal accuracy considerably bone is a bad conductor. The major drawback is spatial resolution. EEG has none. Each electrode only records a broad average—a vector sum of the charges from millions or billions of neurons and a blurred one because of the skull. Imagine that the brain is a baseball stadium, its neurons are the members of the crowd, and the information we want is, instead of electrical activity, vocal cord activity.
You could probably detect when something abnormal happened. ECoG electrocorticography is a similar idea to EEG, also using surface electrodes—except they put them under the skull, on the surface of the brain. But effective—at least much more effective than EEG. Without the interference of the skull blurring things, ECoG picks up both higher spatial about 1cm and temporal resolution 5 milliseconds.
ECoG electrodes can either be placed above or below the dura: Bringing back our stadium analogy, ECoG microphones are inside the stadium and a bit closer to the crowd. So the sound is much crisper than what EEG mics get from outside the stadium, and ECoG mics can better distinguish the sounds of individual sections of the crowd. But the improvement comes at a cost—it requires invasive surgery. Brain surgeon Ben Rapoport described to me how his father a neurologist used to make microelectrodes:. Now the capillary tube is flush with and pinching the wire.
The glass is an insulator and the wire is a conductor. So what you end up with is a glass-insulated stiff electrode that is maybe a few 10s of microns at the tip. Today, while some electrodes are still made by hand, newer techniques use silicon wafers and manufacturing technology borrowed from the integrated circuits industry. The way local field potentials LFP work is simple—you take one of these super thin needles with an electrode tip and stick it one or two millimeters into the cortex. There it picks up the average of the electrical charges from all of the neurons within a certain radius of the electrode.
Kind of the best of all the worlds described above when it comes to resolution. In the baseball stadium, LFP is a single microphone hanging over a single section of seats, picking up a crisp feed of the sounds in that area, and maybe picking out an individual voice for a second here and there—but otherwise only getting the general vibe. A multielectrode array looks like this: A tiny 4mm x 4mm square with tiny silicon electrodes on it. To record a broader LFP, the electrode tip is a bit rounded to give the electrode more surface area, and they turn the resistance down with the intent of allowing very faint signals from a wide range of locations to be picked up.
The end result is the electrode picks up a chorus of activity from the local field. Single-unit recording also uses a needle electrode, but they make the tip super sharp and crank up the resistance. With distinct signals from one neuron and no background noise, this electrode can now voyeur in on the private life of a single neuron. Lowest possible scale, highest possible resolution.
Finally, electrodes can fully defile the neuron and actually penetrate through the membrane, which is called sharp electrode recording. But given their limitations, these tools have taught us worlds about the brain and led to the creation of some amazing early BMIs. The dial would move when the neuron was fired.
Over time, the monkey started getting better at the game because he wanted more delicious pellets. The monkey had learned to make the neuron fire and inadvertently became the subject of the first real brain-machine interface.
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Truly cutting edge in its time. Pilot ACE is to iPhone 7. Early BMI type 1: Using the motor cortex as a remote control. All areas of the brain confuse us, but the motor cortex confuses us less than almost all the other areas. When a human does something, the motor cortex is almost always the one pulling the strings at least for the physical part of the doing. Lift your hand up. Now put it down. Your hand is like a little toy drone, and your brain just picked up the motor cortex remote control and used it to make the drone fly up and then back down.
The goal of motor cortex-based BMIs is to tap into the motor cortex, and then when the remote control fires a command, to hear that command and then send it to some kind of machine that can respond to it the way, say, your hand would. A bundle of nerves is the middleman between your motor cortex and your hand. BMIs are the middleman between your motor cortex and a computer. One barebones type of interface allows a human—often a person paralyzed from the neck down or someone who has had a limb amputated—to move a cursor on a screen with only their thoughts. So with the electrode array implanted, researchers have the person try to move their arm in different directions.
When someone moves their arm, their motor cortex bursts into a flurry of activity—but each neuron is usually only interested in one type of movement. But with an electrode array , single-unit electrodes each listen to a different neuron. When the person tries to go left with their arm, maybe 41 others fire. After going through a bunch of different movements and directions and speeds, a computer takes the data from the electrodes and synthesizes it into a general understanding of which firing patterns correspond to which movement intentions on an X-Y axis.
And this actually works. Another quadriplegic woman flew an F fighter jet in a simulation, and a monkey recently used his mind to ride around in a wheelchair. And why stop with arms? Brazilian BMI pioneer Miguel Nicolelis and his team built an entire exoskeleton that allowed a paralyzed man to make the opening kick of the World Cup. In one video I saw, a woman with numbed fingers tried to light a match, and it was almost impossible for her to do it, despite having no other disabilities.
And the beginning of this video shows the physical struggles of a man with a perfectly functional motor cortex but impaired proprioception. So for something like a bionic arm to really feel like an arm, and to really be useful, it needs to be able to send sensory information back in. Stimulating neurons is even harder than recording them. As researcher Flip Sabes explained to me:. You can compare it to the planets in the Solar System.
You can watch the planets move around and record their movements. It turns out that if you reward a monkey with a succulent sip of orange juice when a single neuron fires, eventually the monkey will learn to make the neuron fire on demand. The neuron could then act as another kind of remote control. This means that normal motor cortex commands are only one possibility as a control mechanism. At first, this would seem odd to the patient—but eventually the brain can learn to treat that signal as a new sense of touch.
In these developments are the seeds of other future breakthrough technologies—like brain-to-brain communication. Nicolelis created an experiment where the motor cortex of one rat in Brazil was wired, via the internet, to the motor cortex of another rat in the US. The rat in Brazil was presented with two transparent boxes, each with a lever attached to it, and inside one of the boxes would be a treat.
To attempt to get the treat, the rat would press the lever of the box that held the treat. The Brazil rat had the key knowledge—but the way the experiment worked, the rats only received treats when the US rat pressed the correct lever. If he pulled the wrong one, neither would. The amazing thing is that over time, the rats got better at this and began to work together, almost like a single nervous system—even though neither had any idea the other rat existed. This has even worked, crudely, in people. Two people, in separate buildings, worked together to play a video game.
One could see the game, the other had the controller. Early BMI type 2: Artificial ears and eyes. There are a couple reasons giving sound to the deaf and sight to the blind is among the more manageable BMI categories. The first is that like the motor cortex, the sensory cortices are parts of the brain we tend to understand pretty well, partly because they too tend to be well-mapped. And while the motor cortex stuff was mostly about recording neurons to get information out of the brain, artificial senses go the other way— stimulation of neurons to send information in.
On the ears side of things, recent decades have seen the development of the groundbreaking cochlear implant. What we think of as sound is actually patterns of vibrations in the air molecules around your head. This causes those nerves to fire a pattern of action potentials that send the code into your auditory cortex for processing. When vibrations enter the fluid in the cochlea, it causes thousands of tiny hairs lining the cochlea to vibrate, and the cells those hairs are attached to transform the mechanical energy of the vibrations into electrical signals that then excite the auditory nerve.
The cochlea also sorts the incoming sound by frequency. A cochlear implant is a little computer that has a microphone coming out of one end which sits on the ear and a wire coming out of the other that connects to an array of electrodes that line the cochlea. So sound comes into the microphone the little hook on top of the ear , and goes into the brown thing, which processes the sound to filter out the less useful frequencies.
The electrodes filter the impulses by frequency just like the cochlea and stimulate the auditory nerve just like the hairs on the cochlea do. This is what it looks like from the outside:. In other words, an artificial ear, performing the same sound-to-impulses-to-auditory-nerve function the ear does. Check out what sound sounds like to someone with the implant. Not great. Most cochlear implants have about Like this baby, whose reaction to hearing for the first time is cute. Blindness is often the result of a retinal disease.
When this is the case, a retinal implant can perform a similar function for sight as a cochlear implant does for hearing though less directly. It performs the normal duties of the eye and hands things off to nerves in the form of electrical impulses, just like the eye does. A more complicated interface than the cochlear implant, the first retinal implant was approved by the FDA in —the Argus II implant, made by Second Sight.
The retinal implant looks like this: The retinal implant has 60 sensors. The retina has around a million neurons. But seeing vague edges and shapes and patterns of light and dark sure beats seeing nothing at all. Dating back to the late s, deep brain stimulation is yet another crude tool that is also still pretty life-changing for a lot of people.
What happens here is one or two electrode wires, usually with four separate electrode sites , are inserted into the brain, often ending up somewhere in the limbic system. Then a little pacemaker computer is implanted in the upper chest and wired to the electrodes. Like this unpleasant man: The electrodes can then give a little zap when called for, which can do a variety of important things. It looks like this:.
He decides that some specific change in the world will increase the likelihood of humanity having the best possible future. He knows that large-scale world change happens quickest when the whole world—the Human Colossus—is working on it. So when Elon builds a company, its core initial strategy is usually to create the match that will ignite the industry and get the Human Colossus working on the cause.
This, in turn, Elon believes, will lead to developments that will change the world in the way that increases the likelihood of humanity having the best possible future. But you have to look at his companies from a zoomed-out perspective to see all of this. If you look at history, this makes sense—behind each of the greatest revolutions in human progress is an engineering breakthrough. A match. And when I started trying to figure out what Neuralink was all about, I knew those were the variables I needed to fill in. As I understood it, a whole-brain interface was what a brain-machine interface would be in an ideal world—a super-advanced concept where essentially all the neurons in your brain are able to communicate seamlessly with the outside world.
Paul told me his field was called neuromorphic, where the goal is to design transistor circuits based on principles of brain architecture. DJ Seo , who while at UC Berkeley in his mids designed a cutting-edge new BMI concept called neural dust —tiny ultrasound sensors that could provide a new way to record brain activity.
When it comes to neuroscience, Elon has the least technical knowledge on the team—but he also started SpaceX without very much technical knowledge and quickly became a certifiable rocket science expert by reading and by asking questions of the experts on the team. I asked Elon about how he brought this team together. Because it was such a cross-disciplinary area, he looked for cross-disciplinary experts.
And you can see that in those bios—everyone brings their own unique crossover combination to a group that together has the rare ability to think as a single mega-expert. Elon also wanted to find people who were totally on board with the zoomed-out mission—who were more focused on industrial results than producing white papers. Not an easy group to assemble.
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But there they were, sitting around the table looking at me, as it hit me 40 seconds in that I should have done a lot more research before coming here. They took the hint and dumbed it down about four notches, and as the discussion went on, I started to wrap my head around things.
Throughout the next few weeks, I met with each of the remaining Neuralink team members as well, each time playing the role of the dumbest person in the room. In these meetings, I focused on trying to form a comprehensive picture of the challenges at hand and what the road to a wizard hat might look like. I really wanted to understand these two boxes:.
The first one was easy. The business side of Neuralink is a brain-machine interface development company. We are aiming to bring something to market that helps with certain severe brain injuries stroke, cancer lesion, congenital in about four years. The second box was a lot hazier. It seems obvious to us today that using steam engine technology to harness the power of fire was the thing that had to happen to ignite the Industrial Revolution.
But if you talked to someone in about it, they would have had a lot less clarity—on exactly which hurdles they were trying to get past, what kinds of innovations would allow them to leap over those hurdles, or how long any of this would take. The starting place for a discussion about innovation is a discussion about hurdles—what are you even trying to innovate past? Pew recently conducted a survey asking Americans about which future biotechnologies give them the shits the most.
It turns out BMIs worry Americans even more than gene editing: To a scientist, to think about changing the fundamental nature of life—creating viruses, eugenics, etc. History supports this prediction. People were super timid about Lasik eye surgery when it first became a thing—20 years ago, 20, people a year had the procedure done. Then everyone got used to it and now 2,, people a year get laser eye surgery.
Similar story with pacemakers. And defibrillators. And organ transplants—which people at first considered a freakish Frankenstein-esque concept. Brain implants will probably be the same story. Flip weighed in on this topic too:. Being able to read it out is an engineering problem. Which then, ironically, will teach us about the brain.
As Flip points out:. Then this scientific progress can lead to more engineering progress. The engineering and the science are gonna ratchet each other up here. Tesla and SpaceX are both stepping on some very big toes like the auto industry, the oil and gas industry, and the military-industrial complex.
But two challenges stand out as the largest—challenges that, if conquered, may be impactful enough to trigger all the other hurdles to fall and totally change the trajectory of our future. There have never been more than a couple hundred electrodes in a human brain at once.
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When it comes to vision, that equals a super low-res image. When it comes to motor, that limits the possibilities to simple commands with little control. Early computers had a similar problem. Then in came the integrated circuit—the computer chip. Until the 90s, electrodes for BMIs were all made by hand. Then we started figuring out how to manufacture those little electrode multielectrode arrays using conventional semiconductor technologies. Currently, we seem to be somewhere in between. Ian Stevenson and Konrad Kording published a paper that looked at the maximum number of neurons that could be simultaneously recorded at various points throughout the last 50 years in any animal , and put the results on this graph: Once that happens, a million neurons will follow.
This is a major topic at Neuralink. On top of being both a major barrier to entry and a major safety issue, invasive brain surgery is expensive and in limited supply. Making BMIs high-bandwidth alone would be a huge deal, as would developing a way to non-invasively implant devices. But doing both would start a revolution. Neuralink plans to work on devices that will be wireless. But that brings a lot of new challenges with it. Which means the implant also has to take care of things like signal amplification, analog-to-digital conversion, and data compression on its own.
Oh and it needs to be powered inductively. Another big one—biocompatibility. Delicate electronics tend to not do well inside a jello ball. And the human body tends to not like having foreign objects in it. But the brain interfaces of the future are intended to last forever without any problems.
This means that the device will likely need to be hermetically sealed and robust enough to survive decades of the oozing and shifting of the neurons around it. So further miniaturization is another dramatic innovation to add to the list. And just say all of this comes together perfectly—a high-bandwidth, long-lasting, biocompatible, bidirectional communicative, non-invasively-implanted device.
Now we can speak back and forth with a million neurons at once! But I bet the telephone and the car and the moon landing would have seemed like insurmountable technological challenges to people a few decades earlier. Just like I bet this—. And yet, there it is in your pocket. People always underestimate the Human Colossus. That shift is what the Neuralink team will try to figure out. Other teams are working on it too, and some cool ideas are being developed:. A team at the University of Illinois is developing an interface made of silk: Silk can be rolled up into a thin bundle and inserted into the brain relatively non-invasively.
There, it would theoretically spread out around the brain and melt into the contours like shrink wrap. On the silk would be flexible silicon transistor arrays. In his TEDx Talk , Hong Yeo demonstrated an electrode array printed on his skin, like a temporary tattoo, and researchers say this kind of technique could potentially be used on the brain: Another group is working on a kind of nano-scale, electrode-lined neural mesh so tiny it can be injected into the brain with a syringe: For scale—that red tube on the right is the tip of a syringe.
Extreme Tech has a nice graphic illustrating the concept:. Other non-invasive techniques involve going in through veins and arteries. A second DARPA project aims to fit a million electrodes into a device the size of two nickels stacked. Another idea being worked on is transcranial magnetic stimulation TMS , in which a magnetic coil outside the head can create electrical pulses inside the brain.
Right nearby, above the pia, would be a 3mm-sized device that could communicate with the dust sensors via ultrasound. This is another example of the innovation benefits that come from an interdisciplinary team.
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And you can easily see the multi-field influence in how it works: Others are working on even more out-there ideas, like optogenetics where you inject a virus that attaches to a brain cell, causing it to thereafter be stimulated by light or even using carbon nanotubes —a million of which could be bundled together and sent to the brain via the bloodstream.
Developments will begin to happen rapidly. Brain interface bandwidth will get better and better as the procedures to implant them become simpler and cheaper. Public interest will pick up. And when public interest picks up, the Human Colossus notices an opportunity—and then the rate of development skyrockets. I tried to get the Neuralink team to talk about with me.
I wanted to know what life was going to be like once this all became a thing. I also focused a large portion of my talks with Elon on the far future possibilities and had other helpful discussions with Moran Cerf, a neuroscientist friend of mine who works on BMIs and thinks a lot about the long-term outlook. He recommended I talk to Ramez Naam, writer of the popular Nexus Trilogy , a series all about the future of BMIs, and also someone with a hard tech background that includes 19 software-related patents.
So I had a chat with Ramez to round out the picture and ask him the remaining questions I had about everything. And I came out of all of it utterly blown away. Which got me thinking about the concept of how many years one would need to go into the future such that the ensuing shock from the level of progress would kill you. Ever since the Human Colossus was born, our world has had a weird property to it—it gets more magical as time goes on.
And because advancement begets more rapid advancement, the trend is that as time passes, the DPUs get shorter. For George Washington, a DPU was a couple hundred years, which is outrageously short in the scheme of human history. But we now live in a time where things are moving so fast that we might experience one or even multiple DPUs in our lifetime. Anyway, I think about DPUs a lot and I always wonder what it would feel like to go forward in a time machine and experience what George would experience coming here.
What kind of future could blow my mind so hard that it would kill me? I think I might finally have a descriptive picture of a piece of our shocking future. Let me paint it for you. The budding industry of brain-machine interfaces is the seed of a revolution that will change just about everything. Then came electricity and the pace picked up. Then phones became cordless. Then mobile. Computers went from being devices for work and games to windows into a digital world we all became a part of.
Then phones and computers merged into an everything device that brought the magic out of our homes and put it into our hands. And on our wrists. The magic is heading into our brains. A whole-brain interface would give your brain the ability to communicate wirelessly with the cloud, with computers, and with the brains of anyone with a similar interface in their head. This flow of information between your brain and the outside world would be so effortless, it would feel similar to the thinking that goes on in your head today.
The first meaning gets at the idea of physical brain parts. We discussed three layers of brain parts—the brain stem run by the frog , the limbic system run by the monkey , and the cortex run by the rational thinker. The wizard hat interface, then, would be our tertiary layer—a new physical brain part to complement the other two. We already have a digital tertiary layer in a sense, in that you have your computer or your phone or your applications.
You can ask a question via Google and get an answer instantly. You can access any book or any music. With a spreadsheet, you can do incredible calculations. If you had an Empire State building filled with people—even if they had calculators, let alone if they had to do it with a pencil and paper—one person with a laptop could outdo the Empire State Building filled with people with calculators.
You can video chat with someone in freaking Timbuktu for free. You can record as much video with sound as you want, take a zillion pictures, have them tagged with who they are and when it took place. You can broadcast communications through social media to millions of people simultaneously for free. We feel like humans who use devices to do things.
Digital you is fully you—as much as in-person you is you—right? The difference is the medium. We use these devices every time we talk to each other in person. It goes:. Then we built upon that with another leap, inventing a second layer of devices, with its own medium, allowing us to talk long distance:. All of these things are simply tools to move thoughts from brain to brain—so who cares if the tool is held in your hand, your throat, or your eye sockets? The digital age has made us a dual entity—a physical creature who interacts with its physical environment using its biological parts and a digital creature whose digital devices—whose digital parts —allow it to interact with the digital world.
And when you think of it like that, you realize how obvious it is to want to upgrade the medium that connects us to that world. This is the change Elon believes is actually happening when the magic goes into our brains:. The thing that would change is the interface—having a high-bandwidth interface to your digital enhancements. And in fact, output has gone backwards. It used to be, in your most frequent form, output would be ten-finger typing.
We should be able to improve that by many orders of magnitude with a direct neural interface. A whole-brain interface is that upgrade. It changes us from creatures whose primary and secondary layers live inside their heads and whose tertiary layer lives in their pocket, in their hand, or on their desk—. A wizard hat makes your brain into the device, allowing your thoughts to go straight from your head into the digital world. But in a wizard hat world, it would look more like this:. If information were a milkshake, bandwidth would be the width of the straw.
Today, the bandwidth-of-communication graph looks something like this:. So computers can suck up the milkshake through a giant pipe, a human thinking would be using a large, pleasant-to-use straw, while language would be a frustratingly tiny coffee stirrer straw and typing let alone texting would be like trying to drink a milkshake through a syringe needle—you might be able to get a drop out once a minute.
Moran Cerf has gathered data on the actual bandwidth of different parts of the nervous system and on this graph, he compares them to equivalent bandwidths in the computer world:. There are a bunch of concepts in your head that then your brain has to try to compress into this incredibly low data rate called speech or typing. And this is very lossy as well. This makes sense—nuance is like a high-resolution thought , which makes the file simply too big to transfer quickly through a coffee straw. The coffee straw gives you two bad options when it comes to nuance: take a lot of time saying a lot of words to really depict the nuanced thought or imagery you want to convey to me, or save time by using succinct language—but inevitably fail to transfer over the nuance.
Compounding the effect is the fact that language itself is a low-resolution medium. A word is simply an approximation of a thought—buckets that a whole category of similar-but-distinct thoughts can all be shoved into. But compared to the richness and uniqueness of the ideas in our heads, and the large-bandwidth straw our internal thoughts flow through, all human-to-human communication is very lossy. Thinking about the phenomenon of communication as what it is—brains trying to share things with each other—you see the history of communication not as this:.
It really may be that the second major era of communication—the ,year Era of Indirect Communication—is in its very last moments. We might be living on the line that divides timeline sections. And because indirect communication requires third-party body parts or digital parts, the end of Era 2 may be looked back upon as the era of physical devices. In an era where your brain is the device, there will be no need to carry anything around. One thing to keep in mind as we think about all of this is that none of it will take you by surprise. But there are thousands of people currently walking around with electrodes in their brain, like those with cochlear implants, retinal implants, and deep brain implants—all benefiting from early BMIs.
The next few steps on the staircase will continue to focus on restoring lost function in different parts of the body—the first people to have their lives transformed by digital brain technology will be the disabled. It could help with people who are quadriplegics or paraplegics by providing a neural shunt from the motor cortex down to where the muscles are activated. And as interface bandwidth improves, disabilities that hinder millions today will start to drop like flies. The concepts of complete blindness and deafness—whether centered in the sensory organs or in the brain 31 —are already on the way out.
The Chair in 2014
And with enough time, perfect vision or hearing will be restorable. Advanced BMIs could help restore that bridge or serve as a new one. While this is happening, BMIs will begin to emerge that people without disabilities want. The very early adopters will probably be pretty rich. But so were the early cell phone adopters. As mobile phones got cheaper, and better, they went from new and fancy and futuristic to ubiquitous. As we go down the same road with brain interfaces, things are going to get really cool. The timeline is uncertain, including the order in which the below developments may become a reality.
But some version of a lot of this stuff probably will happen, at some point, and a lot of it could be in your lifetime. Looking at all the predictions I heard, they seemed to fall into two broad categories: communication capabilities and internal enhancements. Like many future categories of brain interface possibility, motor communication will start with restoration applications for the disabled, and as those development efforts continually advance the possibilities, the technology will begin to be used to create augmentation applications for the non-disabled as well.
The same technologies that will allow a quadriplegic to use their thoughts as a remote control to move a bionic limb can let anyone use their thoughts as a remote control…to move anything. But in the Wizard Era, lots of things will be built that way. Your car or whatever people use for transportation at that point will pull up to your house and your mind will open the car door. People will play the piano with their thoughts. And do building construction. And steer vehicles. When you watch a movie, your head is buzzing with thoughts—but do you have a compressed spoken word dialogue going on in your head?
Thought conversations will be like that. If I were to communicate a concept to you, you would essentially engage in consensual telepathy. Even weirder is the concept of a group thinking together. This is what a group brainstorm could look like in the Wizard Era. This group could have been in four different countries while this was happening—with no external devices in sight. Ramez has written about the effect group thinking might have on the world:. That type of communication would have a huge impact on the pace of innovation, as scientists and engineers could work more fluidly together.
The idea of collaboration today is supposed to be two or more brains working together to come up with things none of them could have on their own. He assured me they would not. You can also think with a computer. Not just to issue a command, but to actually brainstorm something with a computer.
You and a computer could strategize something together. You could compose a piece of music together. One concern that comes up when people hear about thought communication in particular is a potential loss of individuality. Would this make us one great hive mind with each individual brain as just another bee? Almost across the board, the experts I talked to believed it would be the opposite.
We could act as one in a collaboration when it served us, but technology has thus far enhanced human individuality. Think of how much easier it is for people today to express their individuality and customize life to themselves than it was 50 or or years ago. It would take a lot of words for you to even have an approximation of what that bouquet of flowers looks like. How much faster could a team of engineers or architects or designers plan out a new bridge or a new building or a new dress if they could beam the vision in their head onto a screen and others could adjust it with their minds, versus sketching things out—which not only takes far longer, but probably is inevitably lossy?
How many symphonies could Mozart have written if he had been able to think the music in his head onto the page? How many Mozarts are out there right now who never learned how to play instruments well enough to get their talent out? I watched this delightful animated short movie the other day, and below the video the creator, Felix Colgrave, said the video took him two years.
How much of that time was spent dreaming up the art versus painstakingly getting it from his head into the software? Emotions are the quintessential example of a concept that words are poorly-equipped to accurately describe.
Obvious implications for a future of heightened empathy. But emotional communication could also be used for things like entertainment, where a movie, say, could also project out to the audience—directly into their limbic systems—certain feelings it wants the audience to feel as they watch.
This is already what the film score does—another hack—and now it could be done directly. The only two cameras that can be hooked up to the projector in your head—your visual cortex—are your two eyes. The only sensory surface that you can feel is your skin. The only thing that lets you experience taste is your tongue. In the future, sensory organs will be only one set of inputs into your senses—and compared to what our senses will have access to, not a very exciting one.
Currently, the only speaker your ear inputs can play out of is your auditory cortex. Only you can see what your eye cameras capture and only you can feel what touches your skin—because only you have access to the particular cortices those inputs are wired to.
With a wizard hat, it would be a breeze for your brain to beam those input signals out of your head. This will open up all kinds of amazing possibilities. No problem—just think out to him to request a brain connection. When he accepts, connect your retina feed to his visual cortex.
He asks for the other senses to get the full picture, so you connect those too and now he hears the waterfall in the distance and feels the breeze and smells the trees and jumps when a bug lands on your arm. You two share the equivalent of a five-minute discussion about the scene—your favorite parts, which other places it reminds you of, etc. He says he has to get back to what he was working on, so he cuts off the sense connections except for vision, which he reduces to a little picture-in-picture window on the side of his visual field so he can check out more of the hike from time to time.
A surgeon could control a machine scalpel with her motor cortex instead of holding one in her hand, and she could receive sensory input from that scalpel so that it would feel like an 11th finger to her. By saying Skydance has conducted an independent investigation and then proceeded to hire Lasseter, do they mean to suggest that they are hiring him in spite of the numerous accounts of women and colleagues?
The two get in a [ Screen Media purchased the rights to the film, which Turturro directed from his own script. Theron [ Samuel L. Production has officially begun on the film, in which Rock will play a police detective investigating a series of grizzly crimes. Previous video Next video. Close Menu. Variety Intelligence Platform.
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