Your brain: the next frontier for startups

Imagine being able to post a Facebook update by simply thinking it. Or starting a chat with your friend using mind-to-mind communication. While those two scenarios sound more like science fiction than reality, several big-name companies are trying to make it happen. Facebook, Elon Musk’s Neuralink and a well-funded startup called Kernel are all working on brain-computer interfaces (BCI).

Earlier this year, Elon Musk announced his latest insanely ambitious company. He’s already disrupted the car and space exploration industries (Tesla and SpaceX, respectively). Now, with a new company called Neuralink, he wants to disrupt our brains.

As the name implies, Neuralink aims to link up the neurons in your brain to a computer. To accomplish this, it is building a device that can be implanted in the human brain. One of Musk’s stated goals for such a device is to enable humans to merge with software, so that we can take advantage of (and keep pace with) artificial intelligence.

When you think about it, we’re already halfway there thanks to smartphones – which most of us carry around everywhere we go. Musk thinks we’re all cyborgs already. “If you leave your phone behind, it’s like missing limb syndrome,” he told the WaitButWhy blog. “I think people [are] already kind of merged with their phone and their laptop and their applications and everything.”

So what are the timeframes for Neuralink to become a reality? Its short-term goal, within about four years, is to help seriously injured people communicate better. So the first users of Neuralink will be people with brain injuries, quadriplegics and paraplegics, maybe even people who suffer memory loss through conditions like dementia. The long-term goal for Neuralink is to create an interface for mind-to-mind communication. That’s at least eight to 10 years away, according to Musk. Although he cautions that it will depend on regulatory approval and “how well our devices work on people with disabilities”.

Although Elon Musk has stolen all the BCI headlines in 2017, another multi-millionaire announced a similar company last August. Bryan Johnson’s Kernel “is building a tiny chip that can be implanted in the brain to help people suffering from neurological damage caused by strokes, Alzheimer’s or concussions”. As with Neuralink, Kernel is hoping its chip – which it calls a neuroprosthetic – will eventually be used for “cognitive enhancement” as well. In other words, the ultimate goal is to make us smarter.

I’ve noticed one key difference between how these two founders talk about their companies. Elon Musk’s goal is to “merge” AI technology with the human brain. In other words, augment the native capabilities of the human brain with the power of computers. But Bryan Johnson seems to want to take it a step further and actually program the brain. “The human brain is still the world’s greatest supercomputer,” he wrote in a blog post earlier this year, “and we’re increasingly learning the underlying mechanisms of our neural code”.

If this were a pissing contest between Musk and Johnson about who’s got the more ambitious startup, then (unbelievably) Musk would lose this one. But probably with good reason. According to a recent Scientific American article, cracking the neural code is “science’s hardest problem”. There are about 100 billion neurons in a typical human brain, which means there are “quadrillions of connections”. Not only that, but scientists still don’t fully understand how neurons operate. “Far from being stamped from a common mold,” wrote John Horgan in Scientific American, “neurons display an astounding variety of forms and functions”. So it’s less like a single neural code than a dizzying array of codes. For that reason, it seems unlikely that we’ll be able to program our brains – at least for the foreseeable future.

If any one company could program our collective brains though, it would be Facebook (some would argue it already has). At its annual developer conference in April, Facebook revealed it has a team of 60 engineers working on developing a brain-computer interface “that will let you type with just your mind”. It intends to achieve this without invasive implants. Instead it will use optical imaging, probably via some type of cap, to scan your brain a hundred times per second. This would detect when you’re speaking silently in your head, then translate it into text.

Typing via brain control is only possible today with experimental implants. A Stanford University report from earlier this year outlined how three different patients, each with paralysis, were able to type “via direct brain control” after being implanted with a tiny silicon chip. The BCI used was called the BrainGate Neural Interface System. So BrainGate – unlike Facebook, Neuralink and Kernel – has actually built the technology. However, it has no illusions of introducing a consumer version. BrainGate is focusing purely on medical need, such as for patients with paralysis.

So is Facebook’s mind control goal realistic? Regina Dugan, the head of Facebook’s R&D division Building 8, claimed that “over the next two years, we will be building systems that demonstrate the capability to type at 100 wpm by decoding neural activity devoted to speech”. Demonstrating the capability is one thing, but rolling it out to the masses is quite another. I doubt we’ll be think-posting to Facebook any time soon.

That said, ultimately I think brain implants of the type described by Elon Musk are realistic. With the pace of AI these days, and this generation’s rapid adoption of smartphones (and to a certain extent, wearables), brain implants almost seem like a logical next step for the IT-adapted modern human.

Of course, most of us will be squeamish about implanting silicon chips into our heads. But once Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg do it, it’s a good bet the rest of us will soon follow.

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