Elon Musk’s company Neuralink has implanted this week the first N1 chip in the human brain. The brain-computer interface (BCI) implant was surgically placed by a robot in a region of the brain that controls the intention to move. This so-called PRIME Study, abbreviated for Precise Robotically Implanted Brain-Computer Interface, involves a medical device trial for Neuralink’s BCI.
The company noted that the implants’ ultra-fine threads transmit signals in the brain. In a post on X, Musk added: “Initial results show promising neuron spike detection.” This suggests that the implant detected signals from the electrical impulses that nerve cells create in the brain.
When recruiting volunteers for the implant, Neuralink explained that “the device is designed to interpret a person’s neural activity, so they can operate a computer or smartphone by simply intending to move — no wires or physical movement are required.” The current medical trial uses a wireless BCI to evaluate the safety of the robotic surgical procedure and the interaction of the implant with the biological tissue that surrounds it.
Neuralink’s implant employs custom-made microscopic needles. The company explained that “the tip is only 10 to 12 microns in width — only slightly larger than the diameter of a red blood cell. The small size allows threads to be inserted with minimal damage to the [cerebral] cortex.” The implant includes 1024 electrodes distributed across 64 threads, and the Neuralink user app connects wirelessly to a computer. The company’s website states: “The N1 Implant is powered by a small battery charged wirelessly from the outside via a compact, inductive charger that enables easy use from anywhere.”
This BCI initiative is not brand new. In 2021, a team at Stanford University placed two small sensors under the surface of the brain of a man paralyzed below the neck. The neural signals were transmitted via wires to a computer, where artificial-intelligence algorithms decoded them and interpreted the intended hand and finger motions.
The implementation of a symbiotic digital layer to the human brain brings new medical opportunities. Musk insightfully reasoned: “Imagine if Stephen Hawking could communicate faster than a speed [of a] typist or auctioneer.” Indeed, when I saw Hawking on July 20, 2015 in an empty giant hall at the Royal Society in London for the announcement of the Breakthrough Listen Initiative in search for alien electromagnetic signals from outer space, his caretaker told me: “Stephen is bored. Would you mind speaking with him?” I approached Stephen and invited him to attend the inauguration of Harvard’s Black Hole Initiative, a center for which I served as the founding director. It took Stephen ten minutes to compose a brief positive response using a machine that translated the motion of his eyebrows into text. This inefficient transfer of information eventually led to Hawking’s three weeks visit to the US in April 2016. If Hawking had a chip to translate his thoughts, our conversations would have been far more efficient.
In 2021, the US Food & Drug Administration published a paper on the medical promise from BCI devices, and noted that: “Implanted BCI devices have the potential to bring benefit to people with severe disabilities by increasing their ability to interact with their environment, and consequently, providing new independence in daily life.”
Imagine archeological digs of cemeteries centuries from now. While the human flesh will decompose over time, the electronics incorporated into it will still remain in good shape in the soil. The common phrase in burial-of-the-dead services: “ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” will need to be updated in the future to “ashes to chips, dust to integrated circuits.”
In the long run, augmenting the human body with hardened electronic components could offer better survival prospects over long journeys through interstellar space. The concept of a cybernetically enhanced human was coined by Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline as a “cyborg” in a 1960 article titled “Cyborgs and Space.”
But as with any new technology, there are also risks. The ability to translate thoughts into action brings forward the opportunity to read thoughts through the same portal. On blind dates in the distant future, the BCI app could reveal what the partner is thinking without saying a word. This unprecedented transparency could have unintended consequences. For example, it could inflict a devastating blow to a relationship when the partner exhibits unfaithful thoughts, even without doing anything in practice.
There are also broader legal implications. Suppose the Department of Homeland Security finds through the BCI app that some tourists or citizens display hostile thoughts about the US. Would the federal authorities be legally justified in prosecuting or jailing these people if they were thinking about committing crimes before their thoughts materialized into action?
The concept of a “Thought Police” is depicted in George Orwell’s book “1984” as a symbol for the overpowering and overarching control that a government may have over its citizens. The ability to read people’s minds might bring this idea closer to reality.
Orwell’s dystopia may take a while before it gets realized. For now, the available BCIs require invasive neurosurgery and pose health risks to those who wish their thoughts to be read. Personally, I prefer to keep most of my thoughts to myself. In my books, freedom of thought is a more sacred human right than freedom of speech.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Avi Loeb is the head of the Galileo Project, founding director of Harvard University’s — Black Hole Initiative, director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and the former chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University (2011–2020). He chairs the advisory board for the Breakthrough Starshot project, and is a former member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and a former chair of the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies. He is the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth” and a co-author of the textbook “Life in the Cosmos”, both published in 2021. His new book, titled “Interstellar”, was published in August 2023.