Elon Musk and his projects have been at the center of public attention the past few years: from the cars at Tesla to the space missions of SpaceX. However, one of the most curious companies he has is Neuralink - aiming to connect humans and computers on a whole new level.
In an interview with IEEE Spectrum, the flagship publication of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), Neuralink neuroengineer and brain signals team head Joseph O'Doherty explains the brain-machine interface developer's targets, facing the challenges of latency, and how far it has come since it was launched five years ago.
The Neuralink System and Its Evolving Designs
While Elon Musk usually gets the public attention toward his companies by discussing the far-future possibilities of his projects, Neuralink among them, his brain-machine interface development company is working on smaller, more realistic goals. When asked by the Spectrum, O'Doherty explains that the near-term target for Neuralink is to develop a communication prosthesis that would allow people with paralysis to regain their ability to at least use a computer keyboard and mouse.
Regarding this communication prosthesis, the neuroengineer additionally shares that at Neuralink, they have the goal of beating the world record for the fastest information rate from BMIs (also known as brain-computer interfaces, or BCIs). Currently, the record is held by a team of engineers and neuroscientists from Stanford University.
To this end, the team has developed their neural interface to be the "threads" of the Neuralink system, which connects and interfaces with the human tissue. Additionally, they continue to find promising materials that would work for the long-term application required by the product. Currently, their prototype is 16 contacts per thread, with each being separated by about 200 microns (one-millionth of a meter). Aside from 64 threads with 16 channels each (64x16), Neuralink is also testing 128x8 and 256x4 configurations.
What Neuralink Has to Solve to be the Best
One of the main challenges they're facing right now, O'Doherty explains, is latency. Web infra developer and security company Cloudflare explains latency as the time it takes between user action and the resulting response, or simply the time it takes from the input to the output response. For Neuralink, all of its sources must be eliminated, keeping this lead time as slow as possible - from signal spikes to the packetization processes from the communication medium, which, in this case, is Bluetooth-based. The same problem-solving approach must be applied to the receiver side, which utilizes similar technology.
Aside from these technology solutions, they're working on, the Elon Musk brain-machine interface company also continues testing its designs, with its latest efforts on testing on monkeys - and it's also working to surpass the current record of 6.49 bits per second for non-human primates. Unlike humans, whose BMI rates can easily be quantified by standardized testing methods, non-human primates like monkeys do not speak, read, or write in English as we do.
"Non-human primates can learn other more complicated tasks," O'Doherty explains. "The training can be lengthy, because we can't tell them what to do; we have to show them and take small steps toward more complicated things."
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