The news of the first installation experiment on a human of the system produced by Neuralink, one of Elon Musk’s companies, has aroused curiosity and caused great alarm. We are once again talking about the dangers of a technology potentially capable of overlapping the human being – and perhaps even overtaking him in some fields. Going beyond the suggestions of science fiction and emotion, to evaluate potential and possible risks, we try to understand how the new scientific principles and new technologies introduced work. The professor helps us do it Marco Re, professor of Digital Electronics at the Department of Electronic Engineering of the University of Rome Tor Vergata.
First of all, help us understand how the product created by Neuralink works in practice.
In reality, one could roughly say that the N1 system constitutes a bidirectional interface to and from the human brain to collect signals and implement electrical actions on the brain itself, as if we had a USB port that serves our brain.
Neuralink produces an electronic solution capable of allowing us to interact bidirectionally with the human brain. The system consists of three parts: the biologically compatible N1 unit implantable in the skull. An external data processing unit and a microsurgery robot called R1.
The N1 platform, placed in the skull, has extremely small dimensions, the size of a coin so to speak, and its power consumption would be such as to allow an entire day’s autonomy via an internal magnetically rechargeable battery. Exactly as happens with the magnetic charging of our cell phones.
N1 has a bundle of 1024 wires which are placed by the R1 robot in appropriate areas of the human brain in order to collect brain signals which are transmitted via a wireless communication system to an external platform which processes them by extracting and decoding the information in they contain. This information will be used to generate appropriate actions by controlling external electronic systems, or even by generating particular signals which, transmitted to the N1 control unit located in the brain, could excite biological functions that are no longer active. For example, the motion of a limb in the case of spinal trauma.
Charging mobile phones is a concept within the reach of all of us, but in reality the processes he described to us reveal a series of systems integrated together in a very complex way.
In fact, my opinion is that the greatest strength of the Neuralink system corresponds to the fact that it is an integrated solution: N1 interface system in the skull, external calculation system, and microsurgery installation system, i.e. the R1 Robot. And, in my opinion, the most important thing that characterizes Neuralik is the technology developed for the implantation of the N1 device, i.e. robot R1. The robot is able to position 1024 electrodes with extreme precision in appropriate areas of the brain from which brain signals will then be taken. These electrodes can also obviously be used as “carriers” of signals appropriately generated by the computing platform in order to excite particular areas.
The R1 robot plays a role of fundamental importance, since being equipped with a highly advanced system of cameras and OCT (Optical Coherence Tomography) allows electrodes – less than the thickness of a hair – to be placed in areas of the brain without vessels in order to to avoid potentially harmful microbleeds.
Is this a normal evolution of already existing technologies or absolutely new from a scientific point of view?
From the information available publicly, from the analysis of the scientific literature and also by analyzing the electronic architecture of the system, no particular scientific innovations appear to have been introduced. In reality, it is microelectronic technologies that, as they advance, allow us to build systems that in the past were only conceivable and that today become feasible.
On the other hand, the enormous global effect on the media following the news of the installation of this system amazes me a little. For many years, medical research, together with electronic research, has developed solutions to “control” parts of the human body using electronic systems, just think of pacemakers and intelligent defibrillators, and also of the Deep Brain Stimulation systems that have been installed on patients in order to excite areas of the brain, decreasing, for example, the symptoms of Parkinson’s.
The novelty introduced by Neuralink concerns the fact that in this case it is a platform for the Brain Computing Interface with characteristics of flexibility and ability to transport significant quantities of data bidirectionally, in short, a technological rather than conceptual upgrade.
And how did Neuralink achieve this?
The driving factor that has made it possible to achieve these results is certainly the advancement of microelectronics which today allows the creation of extremely small digital systems, based on transistors measuring two billionths of a meter 2nm. These digital systems are characterized by high computing power and very low energy consumption, therefore capable of operating with a small rechargeable battery with autonomy compatible with real applications.
The other important factor is that of the growth in the data transfer capacity of wireless communication systems, which is also dependent on the growth in the performance of modern microelectronics.
So what could be the applications of this technology?
They are vast and many are still unimaginable. For example: possibility of using the system to improve cognitive abilities, memory, attention, support for pathologies such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease through the generation of appropriate signals sent to the brain as already happens in the case of Deep Brain Stimulation , an aid to people with severe motor disabilities, allowing them to communicate and control external devices through thought, in short, a sort of telepathy. In this way, paralyzed people could partially regain some autonomy. A platform of this type could also be of great importance for the large-scale study of the functioning mechanisms of the brain.
And the potential risks?
The risk is that with the rapid pace of electronic technologies, applications become increasingly powerful and invasive. It is now necessary to outline ethical boundaries for research developments and consequently define legal lines that can help us manage the transition generated by these new technologies.
More lights or more shadows in the development of this technology?
My opinion is that the real “driver” of these new applications is the development of microelectronics. I do not see any particular risks at present in relation to these applications except that as in all transitions induced by innovation it is necessary to regulate with precision, but without introducing blocking limitations, the ethical criteria for the development of new applications with respect for man and animals.
What worries me most is that the “supply chain”, i.e. the chain of design, development and production of integrated circuits (i.e. modern accelerators used in artificial intelligence) has developed over the years with various critical issues. Suffice it to say that the most important Silicon Foundries, places where integrated circuits are produced, are located in Taiwan and South Korea, i.e. in places with obvious geopolitical problems.
So is there a geopolitics of technology?
I’ll give you two examples. To date, in the world, we have only one company (the Dutch ASML) capable of creating lithography machines (Extreme Utraviolet Lithography) necessary for the creation of latest generation integrated circuits. Furthermore, many of the noble gases used in microelectronics come from Ukraine. In short, an interruption or slowdown in the production of integrated circuits due to geopolitical instability could have devastating effects on all advanced societies. A problem that has already been exacerbated by covid.
Western countries have therefore recently launched programs to bring part or all of production back to national locations. For example, Europe has launched the European Chips Act while the USA has launched an even more powerful instrument, the American Chips and Science Act. Our government recently launched the Chips IT Foundation which will deal with the development of advanced research in microelectronics sector as well as having launched a support fund for the electronics industry.
I would also like to point out that another major problem in this sector which is so crucial for the economies of Western countries is the lack of electronic engineers which has been declining throughout the world for many years. Today microelectronics is “immersed” and therefore not very visible and is consequently considered to be taken for granted. A strong effort is therefore necessary to bring students into the areas of science and engineering and in particular into the field of electronic engineering.