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Home News brain hacking is exceptionally hard, no matter what Elon Musk says

brain hacking is exceptionally hard, no matter what Elon Musk says

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If thoughts, feelings and other mental activities are nothing more than electrochemical signals flowing around a vast network of brain cells, will connecting these signals with digital electronics allow us to enhance the abilities of our brains?.

That’s what tech entrepreneur Elon Musk suggested in a recent presentation of the Neuralink device, an innovative brain-machine interface implanted in a pig called Gertrude.

Brain-machine interfaces use electrodes to translate neuronal information into commands capable of controlling external systems such as a computer or robotic arm.

In 2005, I helped develop Neurochips, which recorded brain signals, known as action potentials, from single cells for days at a time and could even send electrical pulses back into the skull of an animal.

And in 2006, the BrainGate team began implanting arrays of 100 electrodes in the brains of paralyzed people, enabling basic control of computer cursors and assistive devices.

The team is making rapid progress towards a human trial, and I believe their work could improve the performance of brain-controlled devices for people living with disabilities.

But Musk has more ambitious goals, hoping to read and write thoughts and memories, enable telepathic communication and ultimately merge human and artificial intelligence (AI).

Today, most brain-machine interfaces use an approach called “biomimetic” decoding.

Once we know which brain cells prefer different directions, we can “decode” subsequent movements by tallying their action potentials like votes.

Even if Neuralink could sample enough of the 100 billion cells in my brain, how many different thoughts would I first have to think to calibrate a useful mind-reading device, and how long would that take? Does my brain activity even sound the same each time I think the same thought? .

While the large-scale anatomy of different brains is similar, at the level of individual brain cells, we are all unique.

Perhaps, in future, we will uncover a set of universal rules for thought processes that will simplify the task of mind reading.

Perhaps we should think of brain-machine interfaces as tools that we have to master, like learning to drive a car.

When people are shown a real-time display of the signal from individual cells in their own brain, they can often learn to increase or decrease that activity through a process called neurofeedback.

Maybe when using the Neuralink, people might be able to learn how to activate their brain cells in the right way to control the interface.

However, recent research suggests that the brain may not be as flexible as we once thought and, so far, neurofeedback subjects struggle to produce complex patterns of brain activity that differ from those occurring naturally.

Electrical stimulation activates many cells around each electrode, as was nicely shown in the Neuralink presentation.

Optogenetics, which uses light to activate genetically modified brain cells, can be more selective but has yet to be attempted in the human brain.

Whether or not Musk can – or should – achieve his ultimate aims, the resources that he and other tech entrepreneurs are investing in brain-machine interfaces are sure to advance our scientific understanding.