Elon Musk says he's ready to sneak into our brains, though no one knows what for: Neuralink's lights and shadows
Indeed, Elon Musk and his team have given details about their plans for Neuralink, the company dedicated to connecting brains and computers. And the truth is that Musk answered more questions than we expected.
However, it has also left more questions on the table. But there are three that seem especially interesting: What's new? What is its usefulness? Where is the future of the company going? I mean, is it really as revolutionary as they try to sell it?
"We may have the option of integrating with an AI"
Musk started the speech by saying that "the main objective of the presentation was recruiting." And, as soon as we look at the company's strategy, this seems true in many respects: recruitment of staff, recruitment of investors, but, above all, recruitment of volunteers who want to lend themselves to undergo the first clinical trials. However, if we go down to the field, it is an example of selling the bear's skin before hunting it.
The media has said the technology is "patient ready," but it is not true. It is ready to start human tests, but a priori there is no real and tangible application that allows us to think of this as a treatment for patients.
Rather, it is that if someone is going to undergo brain surgery for another reason, they can take advantage and serve as a guinea pig. And that is perhaps the biggest problem of Neuralink: it is a technology with a lot of potential, but very disconnected with any practical application. At least in the short term.
Because we are not mistaken, in the presentation of Neuralink there is nothing revolutionary. They have taken the best of the technology that already exists today in the laboratories and have integrated everything, providing a good set of quite interesting ideas. Tons of data are missing, but a priori it seems that they are on the right track.
For example, Neuralink's threads closely resemble the NET electrode technology developed by Chong Xie and his team at the University of Texas at Austin. In fact, flexible electrodes have been under investigation for decades, Neuralink comes at a time when many problems are being solved and adds some ideas (like the "sewing machine") that seem very interesting.
In fact, the "sewing machine" is the great technology that was introduced yesterday and offers very creative solutions to problems that in recent years have strangled the development of the laboratory. However, the White Paper (the documentation they have submitted) is very limited in data.
What is your near future?
In his own words, "the goal is to eventually implant devices in paraplegic humans by allowing them to control phones and computers." Furthermore, Musk himself went on to say that "human trials would start in the second half of 2020. This means that they have to apply to the FDA for permits to start human trials: that is, that beyond knock-on effects, they do not control the calendar.
We don't know what the FDA will say about all this, but it is clear that the data the Neuralink team has put on the table is not mature enough to obtain authorization. As they have explained, they have performed 19 implants in mice with a success of 87% and have been able to record the function of 1500 neurons at a time. Incredible, yes; but insufficient.
I do not know if his investigations are more advanced than what he has exposed, but, in view of what has been presented, tests on superior animals (such as monkeys) are lacking and, above all, there is a reason why. One reads Max Hodak, president of Neuralink, saying that "they hope to start a study with five patients in less than a year" and you can only ask why in a hurry.
Antonio Regalado, the biotechnology editor at the MIT Tech Review, has gone so far as to say that this is "the Chinese CRISPR babies of brain technology." Perhaps his statement is too thick, but, deep down, he is right; We are talking about a very invasive and experimental technology that, as far as we know, does not contribute anything tangible to those who undergo the intervention.
Near the end, Musk commented, half seriously half jokingly, that the platform would not be financed by ads. Beyond the occurrence, it remains to be seen what the business model of the company is. They themselves acknowledge that there is a "long way" to go before they can offer commercial solutions, but they want to deactivate "silent mode" and start talking about all this. This is key to understanding yesterday's presentation.
At the base, Neuralink has a problem: biotechnology is a very complex terrain, very slow and not very sexy. At least, by Elon Musk and Silicon Valley standards. Where will it go? It is difficult to know, because they also do not seem to have it clear.After all, as Adam Marblestone says, "Neuralink is the current state of neurotechnology, fast-paced. They are climbing Everest with a bigger and better team, but what they really need is a helicopter (a disruptive scientific advance)" .