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What BCIs could mean for the future

The Neuralink computer chip’s design  (adapted from CNET)
The Neuralink computer chip’s design (adapted from CNET)

     Would you put a mind-reading computer chip in your brain?

     “No,” said Christopher Schultz (‘25). “I don’t want anyone reading my mind.”

     Ms. Linda Schuster, who is an instructional aide, agreed. “I think we all have thoughts we don’t want to share.”

     But Arfa Hassan (‘25) said she wanted to read minds to gain knowledge from others. “I would want to know what people think of me.” She was also open to other people knowing her thoughts.       

     Like it or not, we’re getting closer to mind reading technology through innovations in brain computer interfaces (BCIs) led by companies like Neuralink. 

     According to an article by Sigal Samuel in Vox and an article by Denise Chao in NBC News, in May 2023, Elon Musk’s California-based tech startup company Neuralink secured FDA approval to run human trials, and on Jan. 29, they implanted their first computer chip in paralyzed patient Noland Arbaugh’s brain. The BCI is designed to allow people to control technology using their minds. Its initial purpose is to help people adapt to paralysis, but in the future, it could be used for disease prevention and treatment, according to an article in CNET by Richard Nieva, telepathy, and according to Elon Musk on X, “symbiosis” with AI. According to a WIRED article by Emily Mullin, Neuralink is also working on an implant that is meant to cure blindness. 

     Computer science teacher Ms. Geetika Khanna thinks there are more possibilities for Neuralink in education, memory enhancement, and even gaming. “Everybody’s into gaming these days,” she said. “A gamer having that, and playing the game without actually using external devices: as much as it may look dumb it is something which is very exhilarating.” 

     In terms of telepathy, Ms. Khanna was unsure what to think. “As a person with a tech background, I’m really fascinated with the idea of you and me communicating without actually communicating,” she said. “But, somewhere I feel, what kind of a world would that be? Where ten people are sitting there not speaking?” 

     Neuralink is a long way from telepathic conversations and mind-reading. According to an article in WIRED by Nicole Kobie, the BCI requires conscious effort to detect information from the brain, so it cannot read thoughts, and the information it detects is too limited for telepathy. But, Neuralink has passed significant milestones. On March 20, using X, they released a video of Arbaugh playing online chess using his Neuralink implant. 

     According to a Vox article by Sigal Samuel, despite this progress, former Neuralink employees and biotechnology experts are concerned for Arbaugh and any future patients due to the lethal injuries sustained by monkeys in previous trials. Musk claims the dead monkeys had preexisting conditions according to an article in the Guardian by Rachel Levy. According to an article by Liam Drew in Nature, a leading British science journal, doctors also claim there’s a lack of transparency in the trial which exacerbates safety concerns. According to an article in Reuters by Marisa Taylor, in February, the FDA cited Neuralink over problems with their animal labs, but allowed the human trial to continue.

     Beyond its physical effects, Neuralink raises other ethical issues. According to an article in Forbes by Jason Lau and an article in Life Science magazine by Nancy S. Jecker and Andrew Ko, certain experts fear hacking Neuralink would be one of the best technological avenues to manipulate, attack, and steal. “They should have the right regulations, the right approvals. A strict firewall should be put around it,” Ms. Khanna said. “[Hacking] would be very dangerous, imagine someone hacking into your brain.”

     These kinds of ethical issues are nothing new, especially because computer chips have already been put in human brains, according to an article in the scientific journal Brain Sciences called “Summary of over Fifty Years with Brain-Computer Interfaces—A Review.” Similarly, according to articles in Smithsonian magazine by Will Sullivan and Alex Fox, other companies have created technology that allows paralyzed people to operate a talking digital avatar and robot prosthetics, and according to an article in the New York Times by Andrew Pollack, a paralyzed man was first able to control a mouse with his mind in 2006. The experimental design of the Neuralink BCI and Neuralink’s goals to expand into cognitive and physical enhancements for able-bodied people set it apart, which is why there is so much buzz around it. 

     An unusual feature of Neuralink, according to an article by Liam Drew in Nature, is that the Neuralink BCI records individual neurons by putting electrodes in the brain. Targeting individual neurons is thought by many scientists to be the best way to decode thoughts, but others say it is not necessary. 

     Also, according to the same Nature article, Neuralink is the first fully implantable single neuron recording BCI. Partially implanted BCIs can cause infection and are hard to use outside a laboratory. Neuralink’s competitor in single-neuron recording implants used long term, Blackrock Neurotech, has “significantly less” brain-recording channels than Neuralink’s 1024. 

     Even though Neuralink has received the most media attention, debates continue about which BCI company is the most advanced. An article in the Guardian by Tory Shepherd outlines claims the University of Technology Sydney and the companies Neurode and Synchron are “miles ahead” of Neuralink in BCI technology development. 

     With all these companies competing, there is no doubt the BCI field, which combines medicine and technology, is rapidly growing.  Students are taking an interest. Ms. Khanna said when her AP Computer Science Principles students were assigned to think of a new invention, one group made a presentation about a BCI similar to Neuralink that is implanted behind the ear, and hadn’t heard of Neuralink itself. “I was really in awe that something which is there in the market they don’t know of, and they are thinking about it,” she said. “They can be the future Elon Musks. They have that vision.” 

    Many consider Elon Musk himself a radical visionary. According to an article in Vox by Sigal Samuel, one controversial vision Elon Musk has for Neuralink is to merge A.I. with the human mind to achieve “Human-A.I. symbiosis.”  Human-A.I. symbiosis is where humans and A.I.collaborate in making more and more decisions, bettering each other in the process. The idea is that humans possess creativity A.I. lacks and A.I. possesses computational power humans lack. Human-A.I. symbiosis is meant to help people be more efficient and make better decisions. 

     On this topic, in a tweet, Musk said, “Even in a benign A.I. scenario, we will be left behind. But with a brain-machine interface, we can actually go along for the ride.”

     When asked about what would happen if Neuralink put A.I. in their chips, Ms. Khanna recalled a Harvard Business review article that talked about the moment of singularity and claimed it was only a few decades away. This moment is a theorized point where A.I. evolves beyond human control and intelligence.

     “Humans have been around for millions of years, only the last hundred years is where we see this rise in technology. Imagine if it keeps going at that pace: then, the singularity is not far,” said Ms. Khanna. “I don’t know how comfortable it would be for a human to keep pace with that.”

     Are Neuralink’s lofty goals possible? And, will Neuralink help people adapt to a changing world, or will it be a threat to our safety and privacy?


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