Man, Machine and Musk

Paula LabrotBy Paula Labrot      October 16, 2020

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Man, Machine and Musk
Elon Musk. Inset: Dorothy, one of the pigs being in used in Neuralink’s research. Photo by MICHAL CZERWONKA/REDUX, COURTESY OF WIRED
If you think implants are just about teeth, ask Elon Musk about curing neurological disorders from memory and hearing loss to paralysis and brain damage.
Transhumanism is a futurist philosophy. Calvin Mercer and Tracey Trothen, editors of the book, “Religion and Transhumanism,” define it as “the transformation of the human condition by developing and making widely available sophisticated technologies to greatly enhance human intellect and physiology.” In that vein, Elon Musk—cofounder of the electronic payment firm PayPal; founder, CEO, CTO, and chief designer of SpaceX; CEO of the electric car, Tesla—and now, founder of Neuralink, a new technology that he has just debuted, the purpose of which is “to solve important brain and spine problems with a seamlessly implanted device.” There’s much more about Elon Musk, but this is the latest. Several weeks ago, he introduced the world to Gertrude, a lovely, healthy, friendly pig who has a Neuralink device implanted in her brain. The Neuralink wirelessly transmitted her neurologic activity, which was shown on a screen. Scientists were able to accurately read movement activity from different muscle groups around her body. Using Two Photon Microscopy, they were able to analyze the stimulation of neurons and to see, in real time, how neurons were firing. According to Wikipedia, “A neuron or nerve cell is an electrically excitable cell that communicates with other cells via specialized connections called synapses. It is the main component of nervous tissue in all animals except sponges and placozoa.” Musk describes them as “wiring.” He postulates that, “you need an electronic thing to solve an electronic problem.” Musk said the chips “hold promise for the restoration of sensory and motor function and the treatment of neurological disorders.” Over time, he says, everyone will develop neurologic problems: memory loss, hearing loss, blindness, paralysis, depression, insomnia, extreme pain, seizures, anxiety, addiction, strokes, brain damage, etc. If there is an electric problem, Musk wants to be able to fix it. He believes an implantable device can help solve these problems. The first applications will be medical, especially regarding paralysis. “If you can sense what people want to do with their limbs, you can do a second implant where the spinal injury occurred and create a neural shunt,” Musk said. “I’m confident that in the long term it will be possible to restore somebody’s full body motion.” Wouldn’t that be a blessing! There are many applications beyond medical problems. THE MECHANICS The Neuralink is about the size of a large coin. There is a special V2 robot that installs the device. The V2 has been described as a combination of a sewing machine and a microscope. The procedure is done on an outpatient basis. General anesthesia is not necessary. There are no pain fibers in the brain. A small piece of skull is laser cut away and the link is inserted. Thin cellophane-like filaments, one-sixth the width of a human hair, are implanted in the brain. Human hands could not handle the delicate filaments so the brain surgeon “bot” must do the work. There is no bleeding and the filaments are flexible, so they can move with the brain without causing damage. The procedure takes an hour, the patient goes home the same day, the device may be removed at any time, leaving no damage behind. A lively pig named Dorothy was living proof of this. Her device had been removed, and she had no ill effects. IT’S ON! The FDA has just given the Neuralink a “Breakthrough Device Designation.” This paves the way for the first human implantations. Approval demands no harm to the brain over time. Also, the filaments, the electrodes, must be able to withstand the highly salty, corrosive nature of brain fluid. So far, so good. The fact that the device is so easily implanted and removed is astounding, and this is just the beginning of this adventure. Already, the military is eyeing the possibility of soldiers communicating silently across battlefields. After all, the signals being received by the electrodes can be wirelessly transmitted to electronic devices, and the link itself is an electronic device. Transferring the messages from one linked device to another would be akin to airdropping images between iPhones. At this point in time, Neuralink’s technology probably won’t be able to create full sentences from the little firings in your neurons, but it can be trained to translate certain firing patterns into, maybe, images, or single words, and this type of feature can be improved over time. CAUTIONS Yes, there are dangers and ethics questions, “Brain hacks. Governments, marketers, insurance companies, bad actors tapping into the biological core of our cognition,” says Christopher Markou for the Daily Mail. Thought piracy, Markou says, “If we’ve learned one thing from this era of ‘smart’ everything, it’s that ‘smart’ means exploitable.” That’s for the younger generations to sort out. Pandora has already left the box. ELON, YOU ROCK! Musk is a visionary, an idealist, a genius. We all know about AI, artificial intelligence. It takes over our lives every day as power is concentrated into the hands of the tech lords filtering our news, targeting our tastes, and being used to influence our thoughts and choices. It’s important to understand that Musk’s invention is meant to empower the individual. His Brain Machine Interface (BMI) is Enhanced Human Intelligence, a merging of human and machine. Musk has been very public about his worries. “The danger of AI is much greater than the danger of nuclear warheads. Even under a benign AI, we will be left behind. With a high-bandwidth brain-machine interface,” he says, “we will have the option to go along for the ride,” and he wants that option for ordinary people around the world, so the human conscience will be an empowered part of the future. As controversial and eccentric as he may be, that makes him one fine Transhuman! Vamos a ver!
Paula Labrot

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