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Elon Musk sets update on brain-computer interface company Neuralink for August 28

Elon Musk said on Twitter this week that Neuralink, the company he founded in 2016 to develop computer-brain interfaces for the explicit purpose of helping humans keep pace with advanced artificial intelligence, will provide an update on its progress on August 28. The last major update from Neuralink came roughly a year ago, when it shared that it will be using a surgical robot to implant gossamer-thin wires into a person’s brain, connected to an external computer processing unit, and that ultimately it hopes to make the connection between the two wireless for maximum freedom and flexibility.

Neuralink revealed in July 2019 that it had already performed successful tests of its technology on mice and even apes, and that it would be pursuing testing on its first human subjects starting as early as the following year – which is this year, 2020, if you’re keeping track.

C-founded by Musk and led by CEO Jared Birchall, Neuralink is headquartered in San Francisco and has been conducting research in partnership with UC Davis. The company’s goal initially is to use its technology to help mitigate the effects of neurological disorders in patients with severe impacts to mobility and other daily functioning, but ultimately the company also hopes to use its technology to essentially ‘upgrade’ humans to be able to interact with computing devices at the speed of thought.

Musk has consistently pointed out how ‘lossy’ the process of translating thought to input via conventional means including keyboard and mouse is, and believes that a tighter, more high-fidelity bond between people and computers can help decrease the risk that advanced AI surpasses the capabilities of human intelligence. Musk has stated on a number of occasions that he believes uncontrolled, unregulated advanced general artificial intelligence poses an existential risk to humanity, and Neuralink is intended to be a means of protection against that threat.

We don’t yet know what Musk and Neuralink will be sharing about the company’s progress since its last update in 2019, but hopefully we’re hear something about its plans to begin human trials. Musk also shared what he calls Neuralink’s “mission statement” alongside the date of the company update: “If you can’t beat em, join em.”

Elon Musk’s Neuralink looks to begin outfitting human brains with faster input and output starting next year

Neuralink, the Elon Musk-led startup that the multi-entrepreneur founded in 2017, is working on technology that’s based around ‘threads’ which it says can be implanted in human brains with much less potential impact to the surrounding brain tissue vs. what’s currently used for today’s brain-computer interfaces. “Most people don’t realize, we can solve that with a chip,” Musk said to kick off Neuralink’s event, talking about some of the brain disorders and issues the company hopes to solve.

Musk also said that long-term Neuralink really is about figuring out a way to “achieve a sort of symbiosis with artificial intelligence.” “This is not a mandatory thing,” he added. “This is something you can choose to have if you want.”

For now, however, the aim is medical and the plan is to use a robot that Neuralink has created that operates somewhat like a “sewing machine” to implant this threads, which are incredibly thin I(like, between 4 and 6 μm, which means about one-third the diameter of the thinnest human hair), deep within a person’s brain tissue, where it will be capable of performing both read and write operations at very high data volume.

All of this sounds incredibly far-fetched, and to some extent it still is: Neuralink’s scientists told The New York Times in a briefing on Monday that the company has a “long way to go” before it can get anywhere near offering a commercial service. The main reason for breaking cover and talking more freely about what they’re working on, the paper reported, is that they’ll be better able to work out in the open and publish papers, which is definitely an easier mode of operation for something that requires as much connection with the academic and research community as this.

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Neuralink co-founder and president Max Hodak told the NYT that he’s optimistic Neuralink’s tech could theoretically see use somewhat soon in medical use, including potential applications enabling amputees to regain mobility via use of prosthetics and reversing vision, hearing or other sensory deficiencies. It’s hoping to actually begin working with human test subjects as early as next year, in fact, including via possible collaboration with neurosurgeons at Stanford and other institutions.

The current incarnation of Neuralink’s tech would involve drilling actual holes into a subject’s skull in order to insert the ultra thin threads, but future iterations will shift to using lasers instead to create tiny holes that are much less invasive and essentially not felt by a patient, Hodak told the paper. Working on humans next year with something that meets this description for a relatively new company might seem improbable, but Neuralink did demonstrate its technology used on a laboratory rat this week, with performance levels that exceed today’s systems in terms of data transfer. The data from the rat was gathered via a USB-C port in its head, and it provided about 10x more what the best current sensors can offer, according to Bloomberg.

Neurlalink’s advances vs. current BCI methods also include the combined thinness and flexibility of the ‘threads’ used, but one scientist wondered about their longevity when exposed to the brain, which contains a salt mix fluid that can damage and ultimately degrade plastics over time.

Elon Musk is bankrolling the majority of this endeavour as well as acting as its CEO, with $100 million of the $158 million its raised so far coming from the SpaceX and Tesla CEO. It has 90 employees thus far, and still seems to be hiring aggressively based on its minimal website (which basically only contains job ads). Elon Musk also noted at the outset of today’s presentation that the main reason for the event was in fact to recruit new talent.

How to watch Elon Musk’s Neuralink brain control interface startup presentation live

One of Elon Musk’s stealthier endeavors is set to become a lot less stealthy tonight, with a presentation set for 8 PM PT (11 PM ET) streaming live from its website in which we’ll learn a lot more about Neuralink, the company Musk founded in 2017 to work on brain control interfaces (BCIs) and essentially part of his larger strategy to help mitigate the risks of AI and enhance its potential benefits.

Here’s what we do know about Neuralink already: It’s initial goal, at least as of two years ago, was to figure out how brain interfaces could be helpful in alleviating the symptoms of chronic medical conditions, including epilepsy. This goal will involve the development of “ultra high bandwidth brain-machine interfaces to connect humans and computers,” which is the only formal description Neuralink provides of its overall mission on its own website.

In a post on Wait Buy Why back when the company first broke cover, we got a lot more in-depth background about what problem Musk wants to solve and why. Summarized, Neuralink’s mission is very much on trend with Musk’s other ventures, in that it hopes to help humans avoid something he perceives as an existential threat in order that we may survive, thrive, and I guess come up with other potential existential threats for him to also then solve.

Ultimately, Neuralink seems to be aiming well beyond its initial exploration of medical technology, which was really just a way to potentially get testing faster with a practical application that’s easier to work with in terms of rules and regulators. Musk’s goal, per the Wait But Why explainer, is actually to eliminate the “compression” that happens when we translate our thoughts into language, and then into input via keyboard, mouse, etc. before actually transmitting it to a computer. Taking away the need to compress and then decompress the signal, in other words, will make communication between people and computers much faster, lossless, and very high bandwidth.

This has an existential angle because this is a key step, Musk believes, in ensuring that humanity can keep up with the increasingly advanced AI it’s developing. So to avoid a doomsday scenario where the robots take over, basically Musk proposes more or less mind-melding with the robots instead.

That was a lot to digest two years ago – it’s wild to think about what Neuralink may have done in the interim to work towards or modify this goal. Luckily, we won’t have to wait with much longer. That stream kicks off at 8 PM PT (11 PM ET) and will be carried live on Neuralink.com. We’ll update this post if there’s a direct stream, too.