A Look Into the Future with Neural Engineering

Weekly updates on the innovation economy.

Drawing Capital Newsletter

September 4, 2020 

On August 28, 2020, Neuralink presented a really exciting live webcast of their most recent update (1). They showcased a few advancements in a rapidly growing sub-field within biomedical engineering called “neural engineering”. Let’s take a deeper dive into what went on.

Background

Neuralink is a brain-machine interface manifested as a chip with electrodes capable of “hacking” the brain with customized electrical signals. The purpose of Neuralink is to provide a high-bandwidth transmission neural interface to form a direct connection between the human brain and connected computing power. From the presentation, we saw the chip’s ability to “read” electrical signals from pigs, but we did not see any live “write” operations.

The primary goal of the presentation was for recruiting talent, and it was quite inspiring. Neuralink is seeking growth for its 100 person team to reach 10,000 employees, a 100x increase. Interestingly, Elon Musk made this hiring statement with such certainty and calmness that it recreates the memory of Chris Sacca meeting with Kevin Systrom in believing in the inevitability of a company’s success: Chris Sacca distinctly remembers Kevin Systrom stating, “when we get to 50 million users, we will roll out this feature”, at the time when Kevin Systrom was coding by himself in the early days of Instagram (2). 

Among his many exceptional qualities, Elon Musk continues to challenge the status quo of what most people thought was impossible. He has done it with PayPal, Tesla, SpaceX, Neuralink, and more. It is an important reminder in finding a way forward when limits seem to have been reached, with the notion that “if I do not build this, then no one will”. The importance of first-principles thinking cannot be overstated. When we relinquish our assumptions, we can dare to dream, discover, and solve important problems.

Use Cases

So we have a chip that can theoretically read and write to the brain; what are the possibilities?

Cognitive Upgrade

Imagine if your brain was connected to the internet. What possibilities could open for us? Could we save past memories? Can we download anything we want? Can we feed stock market data to our cortex to make investments based on feeling the market? With 1Mb wireless capabilities, Neuralink could stream as much information as a 480p YouTube video (3).

Telepathy

Telepathy is the ability to communicate thoughts and ideas directly between people without the use of external devices (such as cell phones or computers), visual cues, voice, nor other known senses. Telepathy is a much quicker communication method compared to almost all other forms of traditional communication methods between people.  

The first step is the ability to transpose human thoughts with minimal loss in translation into written, audio, or picture form. The next step is the ability of humans to communicate thoughts directly to each other, which is also known as telepathy.

Curing Disorders

Initial use cases of Neuralink and other neural engineering products include helping people with severe spinal injury, neurological disorders, and blindness. An ultimate victory for humanity is to reduce long term pain and suffering.

Unfortunately, most people will eventually suffer from cerebral, neurological, or mental health issues in life. The total addressable market is massive, conditioned on the technology actually working (4). 

Neuralink Specifications

(5)

Competitors

CTRL-labs

CTRL-labs was initially created to close the gap between human input and human output (6). People can access and process several different types of information through their senses, which allows for an incredible vastness in human input. Meanwhile, human output is often slower and more restricted compared to human input. The ability to create a neural interface will allow humans to control a machine with intent, allow people to be more powerful than our devices, and enable people to increase their capabilities in achieving greater human potential. Interestingly, in the fall of 2019, Facebook acquired CTRL-labs (7). 

Battelle Memorial Institute

“Justin Sanchez, who helped fund research done by Neuralink scientists when he ran the biological technologies office at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, estimates that about 200,000 people globally have some sort of neurotechnology implanted in their brain. In fact, the technology is so well developed at this point that the Battelle Memorial Institute, where Sanchez is a fellow, has developed a neurotechnology-based non-implanted device” (8).

21 Additional Neural Engineering Startups

Last year, CB Insights nicely summarized a review of 21 neural engineering startups (9). Ranging from neuropriming, electrical stimulation, stress management, sleep management, human memory management, disability management, neural interfaces, chronic pain management, and so much more, it is clear that the neural engineering industry remains in its infancy with endless possibilities ahead. In addition, some of the most sophisticated science-focused venture capitalists are exploring and financing neural engineering startups. 

Intimacy with Technology 

It is clear that over time, technology is becoming an increasingly integral part of human lives. In fact, Josh Wolfe at Lux Capital describes this concept well as the “half life of technological intimacy”, which is best summarized by his following statement, “Technology becomes less visible, less inorganic, less unnatural, and less distant. From one shorter time period to the next, tech disappears into more natural human interfaces” (10). In some cases, our smartphones are already an extension of ourselves. The following chart below shows how technology has become closer to the human body over time:

Cautionary Tales and Questions

With any new technology and especially with insertable technology into the human body, it would be naive to not consider several cautionary questions, such as:

  • Who controls Neuralink and its update cycle?

  • With the size of Neuralink being smaller than a penny, what happens if you get a concussion or a head injury? Will the chip harm the brain in any way? If it’s metal, can a magnet pull it out accidentally?

  • Is the consumer tied to one neurological implant provider forever? 

  • Who controls the liability and insurance for poor-performing neurological implants?

  • Is there a ban on the practices of thought-based neural data mining and transferring human thoughts for advertising and other commercial purposes that benefits a specific set of companies far more than the benefits accrued to the consumer?

  • Who can first access neurological implants?

  • What are the long term complications associated with neurological implants?

  • What are the security features associated with neurological implants, and what are the steps being taken to prevent misuse?

  • What happens if the battery dies midway through the day? Will the patient retreat back to their paralysis or disorder? Can that cause someone to malfunction in a dangerous situation? Is it possible for the battery to overheat, explode, or corrode? How easy is the battery to replace, and how often is that necessary?

Concluding Remarks

The neural engineering field is in its infancy with tremendous and fascinating opportunities for scientific achievement ahead. Nonetheless, with the increasing intimacy with technology in our everyday lives, several questions linger regarding security, governance, neural commerce, and regulation. Notably, there is a lack of investment in the governance of artificial intelligence, which thereby does not ease the anxiety and fear that the general public may have towards artificial general intelligence. Some share the viewpoint regarding the necessity of a governmental regulator that is needed to serve the public interests; similar to the FAA regulating airline travel or the FDA regulating pharmaceuticals, there needs to be a distinct and defined entity that regulates artificial general intelligence. 

For individuals that are concerned about the acceleration of technological innovation, consider this: there is a moral imperative for technological advancement so that society and humanity can prosper and improve the standard of living. 

Science is not consensus-driven, and we believe that exploring frontier technology helps unlock breakthrough innovations. 

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References:

(1) "Neuralink Progress Update, Summer 2020 - YouTube." 28 Aug. 2020, https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=DVvmgjBL74w&t=2564s. Accessed 3 Sep. 2020.

(2) "DealBook Conference - Peter Thiel, Chris Sacca ... - YouTube." 5 Jun. 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZDOPdKGnTkM. Accessed 28 Aug. 2020.

(3) "Choose live encoder settings, bitrates, and ...." https://support.google.com/youtube/answer/2853702?hl=en. Accessed 3 Sep. 2020.

(4) "Neuralink Progress Update, Summer 2020 - YouTube." 28 Aug. 2020, https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=DVvmgjBL74w&t=2564s. Accessed 3 Sep. 2020.

(5) "Neuralink Progress Update, Summer 2020 - YouTube." 28 Aug. 2020, https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=DVvmgjBL74w&t=2564s. Accessed 3 Sep. 2020.

(6) "Thomas Reardon Introduces CTRL-kit at Slush 2018 - YouTube." 6 Feb. 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D8pB8sNBGlE. Accessed 3 Sep. 2020.

(7) "CTRL-labs – Neural Interface Technology." https://www.ctrl-labs.com/. Accessed 3 Sep. 2020.

(8) "Neuralink: What We Know About Elon Musk's Brain Startup ...." 27 Aug. 2020, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-08-27/neuralink-what-we-know-about-elon-musk-s-brain-startup. Accessed 29 Aug. 2020.

(9) "21 Neurotech Startups: Brain Technology ... - CB Insights." 28 Jan. 2019, https://www.cbinsights.com/research/neurotech-startups-to-watch/. Accessed 3 Sep. 2020.

(10) "Mind Control. By Josh Wolfe | by Editor | Lux Capital | Medium." 29 May. 2018, https://medium.com/lux-capital/mind-control-343b5d5f148f. Accessed 29 Aug. 2020.


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