Machine-meshed super-humans remain stuff of fantasy

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SAN FRANCISCO, July 19, 2019 (BSS/AFP) – A bold vision by tech entrepreneur
Elon Musk to mesh human brains with artificial intelligence remains more
science fiction than reality.

Even as Musk claimed his Neuralink startup had enabled a monkey to control
a computer with its brain, experts were quick to dampen expectations for a
futuristic scenario from “The Matrix” films, based on people with cybernetic
implants.

Musk this week revealed his Neuralink startup is making progress on its
brain-computer interface effort, and said the company hopes to begin testing
on people next year.

Musk, founder of the automaker Tesla and the private space firm SpaceX, has
long contended that a neural lace meshing minds with machines is vital if
humans are to avoid being outpaced by artificial intelligence.

“This has a very good purpose, which is to cure important diseases and
ultimately to help secure humanity’s future as a civilization relative to
AI,” Musk said.

He disclosed that a Neuralink implant was successfully tested in a monkey
in a California university lab.

“A monkey has been able to control a computer with his brain, just FYI,”
Musk said, surprising the Neuralink president during a question-and-answer
session.

Experts remained cautious about his vision of merging minds with super-
powered computing.

Musk’s description “is really an aspirational vision for something very far
down the line,” said University of Southern California assistant professor of
biology sciences Andrew Hires.

“It is unclear if we will ever get to that stage.”

Neuralink unveiled a tiny sensor with hair-thin strands that could be
implanted in a brain through a small incision by a robot built for the high-
precision task.

“Ultimately, we can do a full brain-machine interface,” Musk said.

“Achieve a sort of symbiosis with artificial intelligence.”

For now, the goal is to let a person with the implants control a smartphone
with thought, but the technology could eventually extend to other devices
such as robotic arms, he said.

An early focus is using the technology to address brain diseases and
paralysis, but the longer aim is to make implants so safe, reliable and easy
that they could be options for people seeking to enhance their brains with
computing power, according to the Neuralink team.

“It is not like Neuralink will suddenly have this incredible neural lace
and it will start taking over people’s brains,” Musk quipped.

“It will take a long time, and you will see it coming.”

Musk said the goal was to make adding the brain-enhancing implants as easy
a procedure as laser eye surgery.

– Mystery of the mind –

David Schneider, a professor at the center for neural science at New York
University, was among those who saw barriers.

A major limitation is that an array of regions of the brain are engaged for
handling tasks, while implants target one part at a time.

“A the end of the day, everything we do, regardless of how simple it might
seem, is a distributed brain function,” Schneider said.

While technology has improved for reading information coming out of brains,
it isn’t up to snuff when it comes to sending it back to all the necessary
parts simultaneously, according to researchers.

“They were humble enough to admit their main targets were motor areas,”
Ramana Vinjamuri, an engineering professor at Stevens Institute of
Technology, said of Neuralink.

“I was happy they stopped there instead of claiming we are going to read
your minds, your thoughts, your memories — if they had done that I would
have been laughing out loud.”

– Brain defenses –

Another challenge is that a brain implant triggers the body’s defenses,
which treat it as alien material to be rejected.

“Say Neuralink puts it in a person tomorrow, will the interface hold up
after one year and still keep giving the same signals it did day one?”
Vinjamuri said.

And regulatory approval would typically require long-term testing in
animals.

Neuralink could seek an “investigational device” exemption to try implants
in a few patients impaired by spinal cord injuries or strokes.

“I don’t know that I want to meld my brain with AI, nor do I think do many
of us,” said Schneider.

His hope is that Neuralink innovations could restore sight, or cure
paralysis.

For now, Musk is bringing energy and private investment to a brain implant
area that researchers have been working on for decades with government
funding.

“We need fantastical thinkers, but we also need capital and the bravery to
invest lots of capital in refining these technologies,” Hires said.

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