By William J. Furney
Using fingers and thumbs to bash out messages on our phones may soon seem archaic and even, one day, primitive, if spaceman Elon Musk gets his way. Because we could be using our devices not with our digits but with direct input from our brains, via a bit of technological wizardry implanted in our skulls.
Think it’s all a bit too far-fetched and cyborgy? It’s already happening, at least with lower-level primates.
A monkey called Pager, a 9-year-old male macaque, is able to play a video game with his mind instead of a joystick, which he had been trained to use, after having computer chips placed on his brain six weeks earlier.
I write all day, from early in the morning, when it’s dark, to late in the evening, when it’s getting dark, and although my fingers dance across the keyboard without my having to look down — thanks, typing class in journalism school — I sometimes fantasise about using my brain to type instead, my arms and hands limp by my side, redundant in the art of writing and creating stories.
At one time we wrote longhand, with quills, pencils and pens, progressing to typewriters, word processors and personal computers; perhaps now’s the time for an evolutionary leap to the brain instead, cutting out the middleman. After all, our thoughts originate in our brains, not our hands — so why not go direct to where the goods are, instead of unnecessarily using our nervous system, arms and fingers?
Think of what brain chips would free us up to do, while actually reliving us of the manual tasks we’ve been so used to.
South Africa-born Musk, the brains behind SpaceX and other daring enterprises with lofty ambitions, said on Thursday that when products created by his brain-tech company Neuralink start to roll out, they “will enable someone with paralysis to use a smartphone with their mind faster than someone using thumbs”.
The innovative techology could even help paralised people to walk and doesn’t take batteries, he said.
“Later versions will be able to shunt signals from Neuralinks in brain to Neuralinks in body motor/sensory neuron clusters, thus enabling, for example, paraplegics to walk again. The device is implanted flush with skull & charges wirelessly, so you look & feel totally normal.”
In a blog post, Neuralink said Pager was able “to move a cursor on a computer screen with neural activity using a 1,024 electrode fully-implanted neural recording and data transmission device, termed the N1 Link.
“We have implanted the Link in the hand and arm areas of the motor cortex, a part of the brain that is involved in planning and executing movements.”
This is not the first time the San Francisco-based company established by Musk five years ago has revealed details of experiments on animals with computer chips in their heads. Last August, a pig named Gertrude was the unwitting star of a YouTube livestream that showed brain activity transmitted from a coin-sized device seated inside her skull; and the creature seemed perfectly happy and healthy — not some kind of Frankenstein porker gone mad.
“It’s like a Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires,” Musk said of the demonstration.
Sign me up! This exciting fusion of technology and biology promises to do so much for those with severe injuries, giving them the ability to enjoy life to the full once again, and it may well ripple out further, by allowing everyone to interact with technology in an altogether new and thrilling way, as well as possibly melding with artificial intelligence and propelling the human race forward — especially with the development of quantum computing and its heralded power.
As this emerging brain-machine interface technology is tested on animals, some, including me, might wonder if they suffer and how they’re treated. We will have to take Neuralink’s word for it, that “Like all animals, pigs and non-human primates deserve our utmost respect and appreciation. Every aspect of their care is thoroughly evaluated by a team of veterinarians and behaviorists, ensuring access to high-quality nutrition, socialisation and enriched spaces to perform species-specific behaviors”.
Pager, the company says, lives with another primate, Code, who, according to Neuralink, is “his best mate”.
“They enjoy swinging from their treehouse and napping in their hammocks after an engaging gaming session. All of the behavioral tasks that Pager and his friends participate in are voluntary, and trained using positive reinforcement. Pager’s first choice in a preference test is often banana smoothie, and some days it is strawberries!”
Maybe one day soon, we’ll all be going ape for the technological marvels that have come about as a result of these cerebral antics.
- Title image shows Pager, a macaque, playing a video game via computer chips inside his skull.