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  • Writer's pictureBen Haden

Neuralink: Bridging Minds and Machines - Unveiling the Future of Human Evolution

"Everything that can be invented has been invented," the words of Charles Duell in 1899 have echoed in the ears of inventors since the day they were first said. Since then, as humans, we have seen the invention of the airplane, the discovery of penicillin, man landing on the moon, and the worldwide web – but could anyone predict that one-day technology will replace evolution to further human potential? Well, while similar ideas have been portrayed in sci-fi films for years through the likes of Total Recall and Iron Man, the potential for humans and machines to mix may soon move from film into reality.

Elon Musk founded Neuralink in 2016 with a mission to "create a generalized brain interface to restore autonomy to those with unmet medical needs today and unlock human potential tomorrow."

I believe most people would agree the ability to treat currently incurable illnesses is only a positive thing, but is Neuralink an ethical and moral way of doing this? As with every well-intentioned endeavor, there is an evil side, and once technology such as this is available, people could alter its use, perhaps with harmful consequences. Look at the 3D printer, which came into the mainstream in the 2010s with the intended use of manufacturing visual and functional tools used in medicine, architecture, and design. Instead, the BBC reported earlier this year that two people were arrested for a 3D-printed sub-machine gun plot.

About Neuralink:

Neuralink is an implant (N1 implant) inserted into the section of your brain responsible for movement and coordination by a surgical robot. This robot inserts 1024 electrodes into the brain using a needle thinner than a piece of human hair. The N1 implant is powered by a small battery that can be charged wirelessly; it is sealed in a biocompatible enclosure that can withstand physiological conditions several times harsher than those in the human body. This implant is aimed to be "cosmetically invisible" while allowing you to control a computer or mobile device with your thoughts via a brain-computer interface (BCI). Simplistically, this implant can detect brain signals, which are then decoded by an app.

Progress of Neuralink:

In a tweet sent by Musk in April 2021, he said:

Impressive, right? If anything can be said for Musk's project, it is impressive. It shows the extent to which we humans have reached in science to be able to enhance a human's ability to use technology. If this technology is a success, does that mean evolution has moved from millions of years on Earth to a couple of years in an office in America?

2021 was a busy year for Neuralink as they also released footage showing a macaque playing a basic video game using its thoughts after receiving the implant. On January 30th, 2024, Musk announced that the first human patient had received the Neuralink and was "recovering well."

Ethical Implications:

Whether you agree with animal testing or not, it has been and still is conducted by many companies across the globe. Some people describe it as a necessary evil, as testing on animals before human consumption allows researchers to identify any problems with the product to save human lives, theoretically. But this belief rests on the assumption that humans are in a higher realm of being than other animals on this planet. After all, we are also animals, so does the ability to have opposable thumbs mean we are at the top of the hierarchy in the animal kingdom?

As of December 2022, it was reported that within four years, the company had killed 1,500 animals, including pigs, sheep, and monkeys. In addition, a report by Wired found that due to the implant, animals suffered from partial paralysis, brain swelling, and other complications. Is this ethical? Is this a necessary evil? In science, is human life more important than that of another animal? I'll leave those questions for you to ponder.

It is projected that by 2028, the US national health expenditure will be $6.2 trillion. Therefore, it is fair to assume technology such as this is going to come at a great monetary cost if it passes the human trial stage. However, there is an argument to be made for the greatest concern to be when/if this technology will be available to people without disabilities.

Currently, biases in the US healthcare system due to socioeconomic status, race, and gender cost the country $320 billion. With the state of the US healthcare system, it is likely only the extremely wealthy will be able to purchase one, furthering the ever-growing divide between the poor and the elite. If the implant really can increase human potential, what does this mean for the average person? Is this concern worth sacrificing the potential independence that those with disabilities may gain due to the implant? What if a happy medium can be achieved between only allowing those with disabilities to qualify for the implant?

What's Next for Neuralink?

Musk and his team have announced that they are ready to begin human trials by launching "The PRIME (Precise Robotically Implanted Brain-Computer Interface) Study." They are looking for people with quadriplegia (reduced function in both their arms and legs) due to a spinal injury to engage with a six-year study to "restore independence and improve their lives via a brain-computer interface." It will be the first time the N1 implant, as discussed earlier in this article, has been trialed on a human.

Begrudgingly pushing the ethical and animal welfare issues of such an invention aside, the ability to increase a person's independence is surely a positive. However, as the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) has approved Neuralink to begin trials, it is fair that there is a lot of skepticism surrounding such a device. This skepticism is heightened by a growing lack of trust in the FDA approval process. In recent years, the achievement of FDA approval on novel drugs has increased due to less intense clinical trials being required, leading to the FDA approving 59 novel drugs in 2018, their highest approval rating in 22 years. Despite concerns surrounding the product and the FDA approval, human trials have begun, and it will only be a matter of time until the outcomes of such trials unfold.

Having passed through numerous ages to get to where we are now, we enter the age coined The Fourth Industrial Revolution. Humans as a species are surpassing human power and moving towards an AI and virtual world, and Neuralink is one of the leading technologies in this. With human trials achieving FDA approval in 2023 and beginning in January 2024, Musk and Neuralink are not showing any signs of stopping.

Will this technology stop at those with disabilities, or will it become a commodity that anyone can buy? Will we soon be living in a world shared by cyborgs? At what point do we stop being "human"? Will the implant enhance the socio-economic divide?

I guess this is for us to wait and find out...

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