Elon Musk aspires to make inserting a computer connection into your brain as safe and painless as Lasik eye surgery, The New York Times reported.
On Tuesday evening, Neuralink, a company in which Musk has invested $100 million, detailed the baby steps it has taken toward that goal. Neuralink described a “sewing machine-like” robot that can implant ultrathin threads deep into the brain.
The company is hoping to begin working with human subjects as soon as the second quarter of next year.
The company claims the system will eventually be capable of reading and writing vast amounts of information. But as with many of Musk’s other ventures, like spaceships or futuristic tunnels, one of the biggest challenges may be for his scientists to match his grand vision.
Musk, the billionaire chief executive of the electric carmaker Tesla who has famously claimed that he “wants to die on Mars, just not on impact,” has a reputation for doing bold things, as well as making even bolder claims that stretch credulity.
Like artificial intelligence, the idea of inserting a device into the brain that would allow speedy communication between humans and computers veers quickly into science fantasy.
In his 1984 science-fiction novel “Neuromancer,” William Gibson posited the idea of something he called a “microsoft,” a small cartridge directly connected to the brain via a socket to provide a human user with instant knowledge, such as a new language, The Times adds.
In a briefing on Monday, Neuralink executives acknowledged they had a “long way to go” before they could begin to offer a commercial service. But they were ready to discuss their work publicly.
“We want this burden of stealth mode off of us so that we can keep building and do things like normal people, such as publish papers,” said Max Hodak, Neuralink’s president and one of the company’s founders.
Musk has been active in trying to help solve the engineering challenges that Neuralink faces, according to Shivon Zilis, project director at Neuralink. The company has received $158 million in funding and has 90 employees.
While the most fantastical visions for a brain-computer may be a long way off, Musk may have found a potential medical use.
Hodak shared Musk’s optimism that Neuralink technology might one day, relatively soon, help humans with an array of ailments, like helping amputees regain mobility or helping people hear, speak and see.
The company says surgeons would have to drill holes through the skull to implant the threads. But in the future, they hope to use a laser beam to pierce the skull with a series of tiny holes.
In a demonstration at a Neuralink research lab on Monday, the company showed a system connected to a laboratory rat reading information from 1,500 electrodes – 15 times better than current systems embedded in humans. That’s enough for scientific research or medical applications.