More criticism of Neuralink


Antonio Relagado, senior editor for biomedicine for MIT Technology Review, isn’t too impressed with Elon Musk’s claims for Neuralink. In particular, he explains that the 8-10 year time line for the first available implants is absurd and impossible.

Let’s deal with Musk’s time line first. A brain implant is a medical device that requires neurosurgery. Proving that it works requires a stepwise series of experiments that each takes years, starting in rats or monkeys.

Here’s a time line from the real world: a company called NeuroPace was started in 1997 to develop an implant that controls epileptic seizures. It actually senses a seizure coming and zaps your brain to stop it. The device got approved in 2013—16 years later. And that was for a very serious medical condition in which brain surgery is common.

Putting an implant in healthy people? That would require extraordinary evidence of safety. And that’s hard to picture, because as soon as you open someone’s head you put that person’s life at risk. We at MIT Technology Review know of only one case of a healthy person getting a brain implant: a crazy stunt undertaken in Central America by a scientist trying to do research on himself. It caused life-threatening complications.

Musk doesn’t seem to be considering the ethical problems at all. It’s cool tech, but I wouldn’t let anyone stick wires in my brain unless it was to treat a serious medical problem with tested procedures.

So it’s not crazy to believe there could be some very interesting brain-computer interfaces in the future. But that future is not as close at hand as Musk would have you believe. One reason is that opening a person’s skull is not a trivial procedure. Another is that technology for safely recording from more than a hundred neurons at once—neural dust, neural lace, optical arrays that thread through your blood vessels—remains mostly at the blueprint stage.

So what facts am I missing? What makes it even remotely okay that Musk and Facebook are promising the public telepathy within a few short years?

We criticize religions for making false promises without evidence; we imprison people for bilking people out of money on false pretenses; so yes, I agree, why do we give billionaire industrialists a pass when they make secular claims that don’t stand a chance in hell of coming true, and when they do it on behalf of profit-making companies?

Comments

  1. erichoug says

    I love Elon Musk’s ideas. They all sound fantastic if you don’t know anything about the field in question. If you know a little bit about biology, or manufacturing, or power generation then they are just ridiculous.

    It’s like the old video of the turbo-encabulator or retro-encabulator. If you know the field, the videos are hilariously ridiculous. If you are a layman in that field then they just sound like any other high tech white noise.

  2. dhabecker says

    So what are we missing here?
    We already have sensory devices hooked up to our brain, (in case you had to ask,-eyes, ears, etc.) and our brain has evolved to deal with the information. What advantage is there to hooking a computer directly to the brain; will the brain absorb info as quick as a computer can feed it? Where is that capability supposed to come from?
    Someone has interfaced with their brain by sticking their head up their ass. That might be harsh; true, but harsh.

  3. remyporter says

    I think part of the problem is, though, that Elon Musk’s ideas aren’t generally new- variations on the theme have been cropping up in sci-fi for a century at this point. The man’s a walking Heinlein novel, and while he’s had some great successes, many of his ideas bump up against reality in uncomfortable and flat-out wrong ways… much like Heinlein novels.

  4. says

    It was also a movie! And since it was Crichton, both were about the terrible dangers of Science, and the main character gradually went psychopathic as he merged with the computer and started killing people.

    Probably not the PR film Neuralink is looking for.

  5. unclefrogy says

    @2
    well of course but that was just glossed over. As was the fact that the communication would have most likely be two way with computers having access to all the input from all the humans so connected with the ability to actually process such a networked environment as trivial.
    Just as many sci-fy about that as people with computer brains.
    an AI nightmare? if you can do the one the other is a given.
    uncle frogy

  6. Anton Mates says

    It’s cool tech, but I wouldn’t let anyone stick wires in my brain unless it was to treat a serious medical problem with tested procedures.

    I don’t see why Musk even bothers with wires. As long as he’s daydreaming, why not just declare that Neuralink will employ some kind of wearable fMRI tech with ultra-weak magnetic fields blah blah SQUID arrays blah blah micrometer-width voxels blah? Safe, non-invasive, and no more imaginary than the interface he’s already suggesting.

  7. jack lecou says

    If you know a little bit about biology, or manufacturing, or power generation then they are just ridiculous.

    Or public transportation. On the spectrum of half-assed Muskian misadventures, the hype-tube or whatever it’s called is still the deepest violet in my book. So bad he doesn’t even want to try it himself.

    What advantage is there to hooking a computer directly to the brain; will the brain absorb info as quick as a computer can feed it? Where is that capability supposed to come from?

    Well, the timeline and some of the wilder capabilities being touted are…ahem, a little optimistic. But the basic idea of a brain machine interface doesn’t seem ludicrous to me, at least not as something worth exploring to see where it goes.

    After all, for better or worse, most of us here probably spend a good portion of our days ‘interfacing’ our minds with computers already. The history of computing has always been about striving to make that interface more natural, seamless and portable whenever possible: keyboards, compiled languages, interactive terminals, graphical interfaces, object oriented metaphors, laptops, tablets, smart phones, wearables, voice commands, etc. Direct neural interfaces letting you read Wikipedia in your head instead of off a screen seem like a logical long-term goal for that progression.

    And implanted electrodes and neuroprosthetics of various kinds — visual, auditory, motor — are a thing already. Granted, all pretty crude compared to what SF imagines, and with all sorts of risks, side effects and downsides that you’d only want to take on if you have a genuine medical need. But it’s a start.

    Expecting to get from there to iBrain in a couple of years is stupid, yes. But eventually? Is it so ludicrously impossible that it’s not even worth researching? I Am Not A Neuroscientist, but it looks like we’re at least doing the equivalent of poking around with Montgolfier balloons at this point, so laying the groundwork for Wright flyers and 747s doesn’t seem stupid, even if it doesn’t pan out in the end.

  8. says

    Another example of the human brain being linked to a computer was in the Space: 1999 episode “The Guardian of Piri.” We learn that Moonbase Alpha’s computer chief, David Kano, took part in an experiment years before to link human brains and computers with a series of “fiber sensors” implanted in the brain. We also learn that he was the only one of the four participants who didn’t end up a “mindless vegetable.”

  9. jack lecou says

    Unclosed blockquotes are why we need brain machine interfaces. I’m sure that would never happen.

  10. Dunc says

    I Am Not A Neuroscientist, but it looks like we’re at least doing the equivalent of poking around with Montgolfier balloons at this point, so laying the groundwork for Wright flyers and 747s doesn’t seem stupid, even if it doesn’t pan out in the end.

    No, but laying the groundwork for whatever damnfool contraption we would have imagined as a practical flying machine at the time when we were just starting to play around with Montgolfier balloons probably would have been. The history of aviation is largely one of each generation abandoning the impractical dreams of their predecessors and building something completely different instead. Haven’t you seen all those concept illustrations from the early 20th century for transatlantic liners pretending to be aircraft? Nobody could have predicted a 747 in 1930, never mind the 18th century.

  11. gijoel says

    Do we really want to give a bored script kiddie the power to render us blind? Do we really want to give corporations complete ownership of our memories thanks to a EULA that we signed without reading. Oh wait, they’re already doing that.

  12. DanDare says

    I’m going to take a different take. I like just proclaiming a goal and jumping in to try and achieve it. It doesn’t matter if the goal is never reached.

    The trick is once you have set a big and inspiring goal you just focus on the next simple not so cool step with minimal risk of delivery. You look at how it turns out and either continue, abort or change direction.

    The question is really about weather you should claim your stated goal is really achievable and that investment will only be used to attain it. That makes the abort or change choices problematic which is bad.

  13. chrislawson says

    Funny how Musk can make these extravagant promises when his own industrial corp takes years to get new applications of existing technologies to market.

  14. chrislawson says

    DanDare@13, you’ve left out a major problem with the “jump in first” approach: public safety. Your approach is fine for things like, say, a new idea for a computer game or an interesting new lens for cameras. At worst you’re going to burn your investors. But when they’re talking about major medical interventions like implanting things inside skulls, then overpromising can lead to horrific outcomes. (Google “stem cell disaster” for some examples.)

  15. DanDare says

    Hi chrislawson. I did leave out mentioning public (and personal) safety but not because it isn’t part of the method. Its encapsulated in the word risk. The small step that you actually do has to be full rigor. You may produce low quality results but not unsafe or harmful ones.

  16. Elladan says

    There’s a big disconnect between the press descriptions of what Elon Musk tends to talk about, which tends more towards science fiction than reality, and what his companies actually tend to do, which tends more towards actual real things.

    Case in point being Mars: he’s talking about colonizing another planet. His company is actually building a rocket motor and carbon-fiber tanks, with the goal being a huge reusable rocket.

    Regarding Neuralink, the long WaitButWhy article had a lot of speculation about telepathic brain implants and downloading Kung Fu into your head type stuff. The actual information the writer got from Musk and the Neuralink crew was a lot more realistic though: they apparently want to design something better than existing neural interfaces like the utah array, and use them to treat medical conditions.

    The rest of it sounded like the writer intentionally pressed them for wild speculation, with a bit of Musk’s typical talking about science fiction in public. This all sounds like much ado about nothing to me.

  17. wzrd1 says

    We criticize religions for making false promises without evidence; we imprison people for bilking people out of money on false pretenses; so yes, I agree, why do we give billionaire industrialists a pass when they make secular claims that don’t stand a chance in hell of coming true, and when they do it on behalf of profit-making companies?

    I do not think that there is no chance of such neural interfaces coming true. In a century or so. Assuming that we ever actually fully figure out how that brain thing actually operates.
    Then, perhaps, just perhaps, we can mitigate against stroke damage, blindness, deafness and other real world problems.

    But, anything Musk says in an interview should be taken just as seriously as you’d accept the glowing review of a car from a used car salesman.

  18. chrislawson says

    Elladan — you’re being very generous to Elon Musk here. Remember, this isn’t some random doofus making up hyperbolic statements drawn from a few asides in a press conference — this is a writer who was contacted by Elon Musk to communicate the blue-sky benefits of brain-AI interfaces for a company Musk had just bought; the writer was invited into the Neuralink office to talk to the main players there; he then provided 40,000 words + cartoons explaining why NeuraLink is the Glorious Future of Humanity.

    Why did Musk choose to speak to Urban? Well, because Urban has already written glowing, non-critical pieces about the Glorious Future of Humanity that will be provided within a generation by Tesla. And then SpaceX. This is hardly a little bit of fluff. It’s a deliberate press strategy by Musk dressed up as an informal and independent blog entry.

  19. chrislawson says

    Also, I’m trying to understand why a person who makes a lot of noise about the “existential threat” of artificial intelligence is now trying to create a direct neural bridge for AIs to interface with our brain. Apparently AI is only an existential threat if someone else does it.

  20. Anton Mates says

    Also, I’m trying to understand why a person who makes a lot of noise about the “existential threat” of artificial intelligence is now trying to create a direct neural bridge for AIs to interface with our brain.

    Because the only things that can protect us from the evil superintelligent AIs of the future are the heroic technopsychic cyborgs of the future, duh. It’s all explained in Wachowski & Wachowski (1999).

  21. Alt-X says

    I personally really wish Elon Musk would focus on an engine for fast travel between the stars. We seem to have hit a wall on ever having the capability of exploring the universe. Sadly, I suspect it’s a hard wall that can’t be overcome :(

  22. mailliw says

    Musk is a visionary.

    As former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt once observed, “wer Visionen hat, soll zum Arzt gehen”: those who have visions should see a doctor.

  23. Elladan says

    chrislawson: Like anyone else, Musk is certainly worthy of criticism. But at the same time, complaining that the guy is enthusiastic and likes Iain M. Banks is kind of ridiculous.

    I wasn’t able to get through the entire WaitBuyWhy article, but it was clear from the parts I did manage to read that the writer’s gushing futurism was at least partly done in spite of Musk and the Neuralink people. We can fault Musk for picking someone who appears to have just discovered cyberpunk and wanted to write a piece of fanfic as a PR piece, but I think it seems like a stretch to me to go from that to the “Musk is totally nuts!” and “This whole company is a scam!” sort of fluff I’ve seen floating around.

    His public fretting about Skynet certainly does speak to the weirdness of certain areas of the techie subculture, though.

  24. Meg Thornton says

    Somehow I’m less than startled to read Musk’s background is primarily in the fields of computer science and physics – two areas where even the notion of attempting to gain any knowledge of any other field is taken to be irrelevant or unnecessary. After all, why cloud their clarity of vision with, y’know, actual facts and such.

    ObXKCD

  25. Dunc says

    But at the same time, complaining that the guy is enthusiastic and likes Iain M. Banks is kind of ridiculous.

    He clearly doesn’t like Banks enough, since most of his later books focussed heavily on the more horrific possibilities these sorts of technologies open up. I’d much rather be subjugated by AI than spend a subjective eternity in a virtual hell that feels more real than reality, thanks.

    We seem to have hit a wall on ever having the capability of exploring the universe. Sadly, I suspect it’s a hard wall that can’t be overcome :(

    Yeah, it’s called “physics”.

  26. wzrd1 says

    Yeah, it’s called “physics”.

    Ah, but if you bend spacetime enough, you can discover your own, personal Roche limit. ;)

    As for hells, well that was taken well and fully care of with a Surface Detail.

    I’ve been known to quip that Banks really didn’t die, he simply returned to his home GCU after realizing that earth really is not mostly harmless.

Leave a Reply