The problem: "If you cannot beat the machines it is better to become one." or "Over time I think we will probably see a closer merger of biological intelligence and digital intelligence" - Elon Musk. Somewhere in his packed schedule, Musk has found time to start a neuroscience company that plans to develop cranial computers, most likely to treat intractable brain diseases first, but later to help humanity avoid subjugation at the hands of intelligent machines. “If you assume any rate of advancement in [artificial intelligence], we will be left behind by a lot,” he said at a conference last June. The solution he proposed was a “direct cortical interface”—essentially a layer of artificial intelligence inside the brain—that could enable humans to reach higher levels of function. Mr. Musk has teased that he is developing the technology himself. “Making progress [on neural lace],” he tweeted last August, “maybe something to announce in a few months.” In January he tweeted that an announcement might be coming shortly.
What is Neural Lace?
In the Culture novels by Iain M. Banks, futuristic post-humans install devices on their brains called a “neural lace.” A mesh that grows with your mind, it’s essentially a wireless brain-computer interface. But it’s also a way to program your neurons to release certain chemicals with a thought. And now, there’s a neural lace prototype in real life. Over the past decade, we have seen tremendous achievements in making Sensing more available (e.g. Internet of Things, advances in machine learning), Thinking more powerful (e.g. Big Data, deep knowledge), and Acting more achievable (think robotics but also the societal transformations where ubiquitous computing, mobile, and wearables are becoming part of our society’s fabric). No one of these achievements has been a tipping point of artificial intelligence. Rather, the combinations of performances in seeing, thinking, and acting have opened a wealth of new opportunities that artificial intelligence is poised to address.
Elon Musk Launches New Company
Elon Musk launches Neutral ink to develop the “neural lace,” an implantable mesh circuit that could one day connect our minds directly with computers, artificial intelligence, and the internet of things. Though he plans to start with practical applications such ass the treatment of neurological conditions and disease – Musk believes that his Neutral ink gives humanity, it’s best chance to stand toe-to-toe with machines that will be smarter than us and better at our jobs than we are. This looming “post-apocalypse” can only be averted if we become one with the machines that secretly plan to steal our jobs. Human beings are simply too slow – relying on limbs made to climb trees and spoken language to communicate our thoughts; not only with each other but with the machines. But how exactly could this mesh of mind and machine scenario play out? Even with an implantable device that can read our thoughts how would these ideas be turned into action? That’s where Artificial Intelligence (AI) comes in and where the chatbot revolution could play a major role.
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And he’s not the only one. Bryan Johnson, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who previously sold a startup to PayPal for $800 million, is now building a company called Kernel, pledging to fund the operation with $100 million of his own money. He says the company aims to build a new breed of “neural tools” in hardware and software—ultimately, in a techno-utopian way, allowing the brain to do things it has never done before. “What I care about is being able to read and write the underlying functions of the brain,” says Johnson.
The Neural Lace itself is a mesh composed of tiny electrodes that could potentially be fitted directly through the arteries in your neck and routed into the neural cortex leaving your skull intact – basically a noninvasive surgical procedure. The node meshes itself would be able to read neural activity and relay that back to a core processing unit. It would also be able to “write” information to the cortex through neural stimulation. The core processing unit will most likely be your smartphone. The Neural Lace will include an app for initial setup and customization. Once connected it would be able to tap into cloud processing power either from the neural lace makers’ proprietary source or something along the lines of Amazon Web Services (AWS). So now our minds are substantially directly connected to the internet – information can flow in-and-out at lightning speeds. How can the raw data now flowing back and forth be translated into actionable tasks? That’s where artificial intelligence steps in and helps to make sense of all the data.
In other words, Musk and Johnson are applying the Silicon Valley playbook to neuroscience. They’re talking about a technology they want to build well before they can build it. They’re setting the agenda for this intriguing yet frightening idea before anyone else gets it for them. And they’re pumping money into the concept in ways no one else ever has. Throw in all those science fiction tropes involving brain interfaces—that’s where the term “neural lace” comes from—and you’ve got a brand new and potentially vital industry that’s ridiculously difficult to make sense of.
[Study researcher Charles Lieber’s] backers include Fidelity Biosciences, a venture capital firm interested in new ways to treat neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s disease. The military has also taken an interest, providing support through the U.S. Air Force’s Cyborg call program, which focuses on small-scale electronics for the “performance enhancement” of cells.
The i/o problem is that there are billions of neurons in your skull, and we want to figure out what they are all doing, and if we're feeling frisky, to make them do what we want them to. Neural lace is one of the hundreds of ideas to accomplish this. It’s simply a grid that can record and stimulate neurons, but a lot, relative to other methods. But there are other ideas such as neural dust, sentries, or the conventional electrodes and probes we use today. We can do a good enough job with the rough estimates to have people control robotic arms via thought etc., though for the type of stuff that's really cool, we need a much higher resolution, and scale than we currently have, though this is still an unsolved engineering problem, and it’s even harder since most people don't like to have open brain surgery.
The fundamental challenge is - as Musk says - the slow outbound bandwidth from our biological brain. While there is a relatively high upper limit on how much information we can get into the brain per second - our neocortex is great at interpreting huge streams of real-time inputs from our eyes, ears, somatosensory system and constructing a model of reality based on that - the fastest we can get information out of our brains is severely constrained - we can currently only swipe our phone screens, type on a keyboard, make facial gestures, or try speaking at 11 words per second. A “neural lace” technology wouldn’t need to physically encapsulate too much raw computational power or memory to be still effective, however: all it would need to be able to do is interface directly with the neurons and synapses (…) in the neocortex and then communicate (up to the speed of light over optical fibre) with an external computation and storage resource - the cloud - and through that with other similarly interfaced brains.
"Over time I think we will probably see a closer merger of biological intelligence and digital intelligence." There are few ways to approach this, some surgery - 'It's mostly about the bandwidth, the speed of the connection between your brain and the digital version of yourself.'
While this might be some way off, the Tesla boss said the more immediate threat is how AI, particularly free cars, which his firm is developing, will displace jobs. He said the disruption to people whose job it is to drive would take place over the next 20 years, after which 12 to 15 percent of the global workforce will be unemployed.
I admire what they are doing, mainly because they are pumping money into research and because they are wealthy, they can set their sights on a big problem we’re trying to solve, and they can work their way toward their problem. Lieber and his colleagues do hope to begin testing it on humans as soon as possible, though realistically that’s many years off. Still, this could be the beginning of the first actual human internet, where brain-to-brain interfaces are possible via injectable electronics that pass your mental traffic through the cloud. What could go wrong?