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Can open new doors

Even if the project is a partial success, it could help people suffering from a motor disability communicate, albeit in a limited way.

Can open new doors

Photo for representation. File photo



Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr

Senior Journalist

The Tribune Debate: Implications of neurotechnology

FIRST, the facts. Neuralink is the name of one of the firms that Elon Musk has set up. And Telepathy is the chip implanted in the brain of someone suffering from a disability that makes it difficult for him/her to communicate. Telepathy is a commonly used word for the connection or silent communication between two humans, each anticipating or guessing the other person’s thoughts. But Neuralink’s Telepathy has been described as a nearly invisible cosmetic chip, and it is inserted in that part of the brain that controls movements. British science journal Nature has noted that beyond Musk’s recent tweet about the implant, there are no details of the clinical trial. There is as yet no indication about when the chip was implanted, in which part of the brain and what the extent of the response has been.

One thing is clear: it is meant to help paraplegic victims with motor disability in using the digital device to express their thoughts through words. The immediate goal of the clinical trial, which has been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, is a medical remedy for the disabled. Nature has observed that the clinical trial has not been registered with ClinicalTrials.gov, curated by the US National Institutes of Health. This would require the protocols of the clinical trial to be shared in the public domain, which is a practice followed by university researchers. It can perhaps be argued that Neuralink is a private company that is working on a device or product that is to be marketed for a price, and therefore the processes have to remain under wraps until it can be commercially launched. Though Neuralink had advertised for volunteers with disabilities to participate in the trial, it is not clear as to how many people volunteered and whether the chip had been implanted in just one volunteer or more. It is important to know this to assess the rate of success of the device. There is also the possibility that it could have limited success, and it would not be able to fulfil all the goals of the trial. Even if it is a partial success, it could help people suffering from a motor disability communicate, albeit in a limited way.

The claim that the chip can read thoughts through the chemical activity happening across the neural network is far-fetched because it is not yet understood what are the signals arising from the chemical activity of the neurons and their synapses — the point at which two or more neurons meet —   that translate into motor movement, language and thought. One of the old assumptions in neurology of the last century was that certain parts of the brain, when damaged, cause aphasia, the loss of access to words. Neurologists today are not willing to bet on which part of the brain contains language. Neuralink’s research, as made public by Musk in his message, is that the chip is enabling thoughts assumed to be embedded in the neural network to be expressed. It appears that Neuralink researchers in this trial are assuming that all signals emerging from the chemical activity in the brain are technically thought. The Neuralink chip is supposed to connect to 1,024 neurons through 64 super-thin polymer threads that can be placed in the brain only through a robotic surgeon because human hands cannot manage that delicate task. Other companies that are also trying to manufacture what is known in the business as a brain-computer interface are able to attach the chip to a single neuron or a point through a risky surgical procedure.

The claim that its application could go beyond providing an artificial remedy for medical disability in future has led to speculation that it could be used to ‘enhance’ the cognitive function of the brain. It is implied that the chip could enhance the cognitive powers of the brain in its interaction with the world when it is implanted in healthy people; that is, it would help a person in whose brain the chip is implanted see and understand things much better. In its use as a medical device, it is supposed to help the person translate neural signals into action of moving the motor muscles, but the claim that it will enhance cognitive experience implies that it is like the LSD of the 1950s and 1960s, which makes the brain hyperactive and enables it to experience greater intensity and clarity of perception. This is uncharted territory.

It would appear that the entrepreneur that he is, Musk is looking to create a device with the available science to make things work. He is not interested in the underlying concepts of science. Technology, unlike science, has more to do with tinkering, which can produce surprising devices that work. This is evident from his other projects, such as producing an electricity-run car or rocket technology to improve launch modules that can carry astronauts into space or using existing technology of communication satellites to create the Starlink system.

It is not necessary to look down upon technology as inferior to science. As a matter of fact, it is technological breakthroughs like the telescope and microscope that have opened up hidden universes and enabled scientific discoveries. It is possible that the implanted chips, such as Neuralink’s Telepathy, made with other goals in mind, can help discover the functioning of the brain in a deeper fashion. The implants can reveal much more about how the brain functions through its three-billion neuron network, if not in its entirety, then at least in significant segments.

Musk is a maverick in a positive sense. His is a curious mind that wants to explore all that is around him. He is intelligent enough to invest in projects that others would consider risky; he knows how to turn these curiosity projects into money-spinners. That is why he is a tycoon with a nose for the new and a taste for adventure. Sometimes, things can take a bizarre turn, such as when one wants to produce intelligent offspring through sexual union with intelligent women to create superior humans!

#Elon Musk


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