Neuralink's Big Announcement
Andrew Wheeler posted on July 26, 2019 |

July 16th's Neuralink announcement got off to a late start. After about 50 minutes past the hour it was scheduled to begin, a promotional video played for the audience. 

The video was a crash course in neuroscience. It explained how neurotransmitters are released from the end of an axon in response to an electrical spike called an action potential. When a cell receives enough of the right kind of neurotransmitter input, a chain reaction is triggered that causes an action potential to fire. This causes the neuron to relay messages to its own downstream synapses. Action potentials produce an electric field that spreads from the neuron and can be detected by placing electrodes nearby allowing recording of the information represented by a neuron. 

Then, Elon Musk took the stage. After the video concluded, he said, "that's not a promotional video...it's actually Neuralink." He was referring to video that introduced some of the technology used to create Neuralink's Brain-Machine Interface (BMI), namely the N1 chip. 

N1 chip, developed by Neuralink. (Image courtesy of Neuralink.)
N1 chip, developed by Neuralink. (Image courtesy of Neuralink.)

The N1 chip is encapsulated in a cylinder that is 4mm high and 8 mm in diameter. Also contained in the cylinder is the N1 chip, thin polymer film and interface substrate capable of working with 1024 electrodes or less. However, each hemisphere of the brain can only take 10 electrodes at a time. The N1 chip interprets signals using analog pixels. These filter neural signals and amplify them prior to their digitization. 

Surgical Procedure

An autonomous robot performs neurosurgery on Neuralink's patients using computer vision. It automatically directs a needle with wires measuring 5 microns (one-fourth the diameter of a human hair) at a rate of six "threads" (each one contains 192 electrodes) per minute.

Neuralink's BMI has a high-channel count and single spike resolution. It works by incision into the human skull. A small incision, 2cm is dilated to 8cm, and a robotic system begins inserting flexible polymer probes. These are connected to an external hardware device with a USB-C port. The polymer probes were referred to as "threads" and the whole device as a "neural lace" during the presentation. So, robots thread a neural lace into brains so people can become one with computers. And then Neuralink theoretically connects via blue tooth to neural software applications on your smartphone. 

With Neuralink, the long-term hope is to have your brain become physically connected to software in your iPhone. Isn't 2019 is starting to feel more like it was portrayed in science fiction movies from the 20th century?
With Neuralink, the long-term hope is to have your brain become physically connected to software in your iPhone. Isn't 2019 is starting to feel more like it was portrayed in science fiction movies from the 20th century? (Image courtesy of Neuralink.)

Interestingly,  Neuralink is currently using this system as a research platform for testing on rodents and as a prototype for human trials. Human trials require FDA approval which they hope to achieve by the second quarter of 2020. Pretty ambitious, but why does Neuralink test on rats?

(Image courtesy of Neuralink.)
(Image courtesy of Neuralink.)

According the whitepaper released by Neuralink, "The ability to quickly iterate de-signs and testing in rodents allows for the rapid refinement of devices, manufacturing processes, and software. Because it is a research platform, the system uses a wired connection to maximize the bandwidth for raw data streaming. This is important for performance assessments and crucial for the development of signal processing and decoding algorithms. In contrast, the clinical devices that will derive from this platform will be fully implantable—which requires hermetic packaging—and have on-board signal compression, reduced power consumption, wireless power transmission, and data telemetry through the skin without percutaneous leads."

The self-conscious tone struck in the presentation made it clear that Neuralink is aware that their vision both sounds crazy and will require a huge amount of work and luck to achieve. The world's materials and robotics industries need to advance significantly before anything remotely close to what they described would be possible. The robot surgeon is about the size of a large sofa cushion and uses advanced optics to look into the skull-holes and place the threads onto the brain. 

The threads are made from special materials that allow them to pass through brain tissue. The robotic system attaching the threads to the brain uses computer vision software to avoid puncturing blood vessels, which reduces damage to brain tissue and prevents scarring. They need to be flexible to move with the brain as it moves around in the skull. (Image courtesy of Neuralink.)
The threads are made from special materials that allow them to pass through brain tissue. The robotic system attaching the threads to the brain uses computer vision software to avoid puncturing blood vessels, which reduces damage to brain tissue and prevents scarring. They need to be flexible to move with the brain as it moves around in the skull. (Image courtesy of Neuralink.)

So far, 19 different animals at a secret lab in San Francisco had Neuralink threads successfully placed into their brains by the robotic surgical system. Musk at one point during his presentation let it slip that they had performed the surgery on at least one monkey. And according to Neuralink, these threads are producing data at 10 times the rate of current high-end sensor technology.

According to Neuralink's whitepaper: "Here we report simultaneous broadband recording from over 3,000 inserted electrodes in a freely moving rat. In a larger brain, multiple recording devices with this architecture could be readily implanted, and we could therefore interface with many more neurons without extensive re-engineering."

The Neuralink ASIC was designed for every channel to deliver electrical stimulation, which will be necessary since they're serious about modulating neural activity and giving the user a feeling of touch or proprioception to neuroprosthetic movement control. Current microelectrode implants are connected to the brain by way of silicon probes, which can and do leave scarring on the brain (which moves around the skull more than one might think). 

Neuralink's BMI system claims to have a few advantages over commonly used approaches to deliver electrical stimulation to the brain. The material properties of the thin-film probes more closely matches the material properties of brain tissue. They're hoping that this lends itself to increased biocompatibility, which would theoretically decrease potential scarring and damage issues. Another improvement is the ability to select which regions of the brain to connect their probes. This gives Neuralink an ability to customize array geometries for targeting specific and varying parts of the brain while avoiding blood vessels. 

The Neuralink ASIC is small, hermetically sealed and doesn't use a huge amount of power. According to Neuralink, the ASIC lends itself to custom extensions and is highly scalable. After all, Neuralink is forecasting that they will perfect the robotic implanting procedure so it is a quick surgery like LASIK, where users have their corneas carved in order to forgo wearing prescription glasses ever again.

Bottom Line

The presentation was peppered with warnings that "a lot of work needs to be done" before these "forward-looking statements" that comprised a good portion of the total plan could be accomplished. For example, they stated that "further development" in the field of surgical robotics is needed and that they expect FDA approval to begin human trials within a year. Nebulous and dubious. In ambiguous messaging lies the carrot of hopefulness about a new and complicated technological pathway for civilization to be dangled before the bedazzled. Musk aims to inspire marvelous new feats of engineering, and is trying to lay out foundations for the 21st century where the Newtonian experience of the world gives way further and further to the mysteries of the quantum realm.

A lot of technological development is needed for Neuralink's visions to come true. This is what Neuralink will look like on the outside of patients. (Image courtesy of Neuralink.)
A lot of technological development is needed for Neuralink's visions to come true. This is what Neuralink will look like on the outside of patients. (Image courtesy of Neuralink.)

But there are two very different audiences, miles away yet entangled. On the one hand, Neuralink says it's creating a high-bandwidth brain-machine interface to help patients with serious medical diseases and maladies. This is for the FDA and medical professionals. And on the other, Neuralink's vision is to create a BMI so humans can connect with AI to "go along for the ride", instead of getting left behind when AI hits the prophesied "singularity" and achieves super-intelligent-mega-cognition. Mathhew McDougall, Neuralink's head neurosurgeon said that they're targeting patients with total paralysis due to upper spinal cord injuries. The FDA is going to want to know which is the true purpose of Neuralink before approving anything approaching full-on human trials. 

One question remains: How far-fetched is Neuralink's vision?




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