The future is here—and if you were a bit disappointed with the available hoverboard selection, you might be excited about the newest invention from Elon Musk. Neuralink promises to allow disabled users to control their smartphone or other devices with their brains. If that’s not something straight out of a sci-fi novel, we don’t know what is.
Will this really be as exciting as it sounds, or are we looking at another disappointing I-was-promised-flying-cars situation? Read on to learn why some people are speculating that this will be the hottest new technology to come along in a while.
Monkeys playing Pong might sound like the stuff of fun YouTube videos, but what if we told you that those monkeys can play the game with their brains alone, thanks to Neuralink? Animals like the aforementioned macaque can control the videogame paddle simply by thinking about it.
Neuralink is designed to interpret signals from the brain and use them to power smart devices. Our brain’s neurons receive electrical signals from sensory organs and other parts of the nervous system, then translate them into sensations, language, vision, movements and more.
Right now, Neuralink has only been tested on monkeys and pigs. Their findings have not been reported in peer-reviewed scientific publications, so it’s anyone’s guess as to whether Musk’s grandiose claims are possible, let alone probable. To date, the only information we have about his claims are what he tweeted himself.
So far, Musk is promising that the first Neuralink products will enable people with disabilities to “use a smartphone faster with their mind” than it can be operated by hand. He also makes the scientifically unsupported claim that “Later versions will be able to shunt signals from Neuralinks in brain to Neuralinks in body motor/sensory neuron clusters, thus enabling, for example, paraplegics to walk again.” Finally, the device is supposed to be invisible and charge wirelessly.
How likely is it that Neuralink can fulfill its promises?
All of the above claims sound good. No one would blame you if you’re hopeful that Musk’s newest venture will do exactly what he claims it will. Assistive devices for people with disabilities are always a noble goal—while not everyone will want to use Neuralink to “walk again,” there are surely those who would find that kind of technology incredibly helpful.
However, it’s not really clear whether Musk will be able to achieve his goals. Some scientists call this “scientific theater,” implying that Musk’s claims are so unsupported as to be unrealistic. The bottom line is that while Musk is throwing out potential applications for Neuralink technology, not one of them have been tested on humans. There’s also nothing to suggest that his speculative claims—like helping paraplegic people walk again—are achievable. That is, “Despite the long list of medical applications Musk presented, Neuralink didn’t show it’s ready to commit to any one of them. During the event, the company did not disclose plans to start a clinical trial, a surprise to those who believed that would be its next logical step.”
Neuroscientists who work for the company have hedged their own claims. One neuroscientist said that the company was trying to help people with paralysis form words or “type” words on a computer with Neuralink—something that’s a lot more likely than “restoring full-body motion” over the long term.
Finally, keep in mind that Musk hasn’t given any sort of timeline here, either. This technology could be released in a decade, two decades or hundreds of years from now, for all we know—he’s avoided saying when he expects Neuralink to achieve the claims he’s tossed around.
On the other hand…
Don’t get too disappointed just yet. Neuralink isn’t the only brain implant available—it’s just the only one funded by the second richest person in the world, who likes throwing out specious claims on Twitter. According to the MIT Technology Review, “Researchers began placing probes in the brains of paralyzed people in the late 1990s in order to show that signals could let them move robot arms or computer cursors. And mice with visual implants really can perceive infrared rays.” In fact, this paralyzed man managed to sip beer with his brain-controlled robot arm.
There’s nothing to indicate that Neuralink won’t achieve at least some of its goals, sometime in the unspecified future. Just remember that there’s a big difference between saying something on Twitter versus a peer-reviewed scientific journal.