Marco Galai

Agriculture, Biodiversity and Industry Analyst

Is Neuralink the Future of Neurotechnology?

At the beginning of April, a viral video of a monkey using only its brain to control a videogame was the latest milestone for the company Neuralink – a startup with which Elon Musk hopes to enable communication between humans and computers by telepathy.

This isn’t the only demo of the technology as, last year in August, the device was used on pigs to successfully detect their brain signal in real-time. However, this latest version of the experiment is far more impressive. Neuralink’s tech uses small brain implants that interface with the brain using tiny ‘threads’ of metal that have electrodes inside them used to detect the neural signals. In its final design, the device would have an accompanying app for your smartphone to essentially enable the user to control their device just by thinking of what they would want to do. For instance, if you wanted to access your messaging app and write a message to your friend you would simply think of opening the respective app and then the words and letters you would be thinking of would be sent from the implant to the app and written in.

It may seem like Elon Musk has revolutionised the neuro-tech space and that is partly due to his massive popularity on the internet but his company is not the first one in the market nor is the technology without any scrutinies. A study from 2002 already tested a device that could read neuronal activity which would be translated into movements to potentially help paralysed humans. Furthermore, there are currently 9 more companies that focus on brain-computer interface technology and one of them, NextMind, is much closer to having a product on the market with similar functionality to Neuralink. The main difference between the two products that these companies develop is the non-invasive aspect of the NextMind which would make it more appealing and accessible for people concerned with having an electronic device implanted in their body.

With that in mind, ethically, these technologies raise considerable concerns about privacy and animal cruelty. As more and more people would have chips or external devices, what will happen with all the data collected by these companies? A potential data breach or hacking of these brain interfaces could have ramifications we have not experienced yet. Animal testing is also a problem that needs to be accounted for. As People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) said in a statement for the Observer: “Monkeys in neuroscience experiments are kept constantly thirsty or hungry to coerce them to cooperate and stare at a screen for hours,” and that experiments like these “have been done many times before”. In my opinion, these devices that interact with the brain have so many benefits to provide for humans. From helping paralysed or people missing limbs to making it easier for us to control the ever-expanding digital aspect of our lives, the future looks promising. We should, however, tread carefully. Without proper policy and careful consideration of the ethical concerns or other unexpected side effects, we could end up in an unwelcoming world where people’s thoughts are being used to manipulate or control them.

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