Elon Musk's Neuralink plans 2020 human test of brain-computer interface – CNET

Neuralink's N1 sensor, measuring about 8x8x4mm, can connect to 1,024 tiny probes laced into the interior of a brain. The sensor chip is embedded under the skin and links to a wearable device behind the ear.

Neuralink; Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

 Neuralink, Elon Musk's startup that's trying to directly link brains and computers, has developed a system to feed thousands of electrical probes into a brain and hopes to start testing the technology on humans in in 2020, famed entrepreneur Elon Musk revealed Tuesday.

The initial goal is to help people deal with brain and spinal-cord injuries or congenital defects, Musk said at a San Francisco live-streaming the presentation on YouTube Tuesday. But the long-term goal is to build a "digital superintelligence layer" to link humans with artificial intelligence, a technology he views as an existential threat to humanity.

"Ultimately we can do a full brain-machine interfaces where we can achieve a sort of symbiosis with AI," Musk said. 

The startup uses sewing machine-like technology revealed earlier this year to drill small holes into brains and thread electrodes inside, steering clear of blood vessels as they go. "We hope to have this, aspirationally, in a human patient by the end of this year. So it's not far," Musk said. He acknowledged, though, that approval from the US Food and Drug Administration "is quite difficult."

Neuralink's robot is shown here implanting electrodes that are about a quarter the width of a human hair.

Neuralink; Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Neuralink has the potential to dramatically reshape both computing and humanity -- if it and like-minded researchers can convince regulators and society at large that we should be directly wired to machines. That's a big if. The challenges are immense when it comes to developing the technology, making it practical and affordable, and convincing people it's safe and desirable.

With Neuralink's approach, a robot inserts tiny threads a quarter the width of a human hair. "The threads are about the same size as a neuron," Musk said. "If you're going to stick something in your brain, you want it to be tiny -- approximately on par with the things that are already there."

A "wisp" of 1,024 threads attach to a small chip, up to 10 of which will be embedded under your skin. Each will connect wirelessly to a wearable, detachable, upgradable "pod" behind your ear that communicates wirelessly with a phone. "The interface to the chip is wireless so you have no wires poking out of your head. It basically Bluetooths to your phone," Musk said.

The installation takes place through holes 2mm wide, temporarily expanded to 8mm, then glued shut, Musk said.

Elon Musk's Neuralink plans 2020 human test of brain-computer interface     - CNET

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In an era dominated by tech giants that have succeeded through computing hardware, software and services, Musk stands out as an entrepreneur who's got a knack for other parts of the physical world -- things like electricity, rocks and gravity. 

Musk is pretty busy. He's got Tesla, which makes electric cars and trucks, massive electric power storage batteries and solar roofs. He's got SpaceX, which is launching satellites -- including its own set for providing internet service -- and is working on rockets to get people to orbit, Mars and the other side of Earth. Then there's the Boring Company, which is trying to create tunnels to relieve automobile congestion on ordinary roads.

Neuralink brings the squishier, immensely complicated realm of biology into Musk's purview. Human brains are famously hard to understand, though computer scientists at companies like Facebook and Google are progressing rapidly at emulating some of how they work through technology called neural networks, the most practical and promising foundation for today's artificial intelligence work. One of the most useful aspects of that research is getting computers to understand humans better by processing human speech.

This story is developing...

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