There is a small, but disgruntled and vocal contingent of the world that hates the overwhelming influence technology has over our lives, but its complaints are being further drowned by the prodigious strides that scientists, tech moguls and entrepreneurs have made for mankind. The so-called “simpler times” are far beyond our reach, and while waxing nostalgic does nothing to advance civilization, maybe the grievances lodged by these naysayers have some merit.
Yes, technological advancements have improved our quality of life and helped us achieve a level of efficiency previous generations could not have even fathomed, but behind each inch of progress lies a tradeoff. Amazon, for example, has made it possible to buy groceries from the comfort of your own home, but your Alexa is actively eavesdropping on you so that your data can be sold to marketing firms. The price you pay for such a convenience (spare a few fees) is your privacy. Maybe tech giants are unable to hear our inner thoughts, but before too long, smartphone and Internet technology will take up space in our brains. Literally.
South African entrepreneur and engineer Elon Musk (of Tesla and SpaceX fame) is at the cutting-edge of this endeavor, and these efforts are being spearheaded by his neurotechnology company Neuralink. Launched in 2016, Neuralink is currently in the process of developing brain-machine interface (BMI) implants that, per Mr. Musk’s vision, will establish a communication pathway between a subject’s brain and their smartphone. In other words, this technology will enable people to control their smartphones with their minds.
This may sound like an impractical and unnecessary circumvention of a task as simple as using your hands to control your device, but it actually provides substantial utility to disabled people and will likely set new precedents in medical science. “Neuralink technology is a step toward digital intelligence. We still do not have a full understanding of our brain. The development of the N1 chip and implantation will be breakthrough technology that will open a widow to the function of the brain. It will allow us to receive and send signals to the neurons. This technology is pushing the digital world into a new era,” says American Neurospine Institute board certified neurosurgeon Ripul Panchal, DO, FACOS, FACS. Just like any other technological innovation, however, there are tradeoffs and encumbrances that will stymie its intended advances, and as such, there is a price to pay for this. Is it worth it? “In the neurosurgical world, we have learned that new technologies come with challenges. Initial practical challenges could be brain injury and bleeding during implantation, infection, migration of the threads or scar formation. The effects of such implantation are yet to be determined. If brain-machine interface with re-programming is successful, it will definitely question Darwin’s theory on survival. Will aspects inherent to the human species such as emotions, personality, spontaneity and creativeness lose their true meaning in an ‘enhanced’ human?” Dr. Panchal questions.
Some would argue the contrary, but Mr. Musk and Neuralink president Max Hodak have expressed a rather convincing optimism. Sure, all entrepreneurs express enthusiasm and an almost childlike sense of excitement when expressing their ideas, but a snake oil pitch this is not. Mr. Musk’s formidable engineering track record notwithstanding, scientific research on the endeavor has further solidified Neuralink’s credibility.
The company’s model has been likened to that of a “sewing machine” in that the technology would implant into the brain threads that are thinner than a human hair. A June 2019 independent study from the Journal of Neural Engineering found that while implantation of smaller BMIs is more difficult and labor-intensive, implants of Neuralink’s scale are the safer alternative to the conventionally large ones. The effects of these BMIs have been tested on lab rats to positive results in clinical studies, and as such, Mr. Musk anticipates that Neuralink will treat its first human patient in 2020.
The attenuated nature of these BMIs alone could potentially be a gamechanger for neurologists and change the way brain surgery and neurological research are both conducted, but as previously mentioned, this provides a special accommodation to those with mobility impairments such as multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy. This may sound like a razor-thin segment of the population, but these days, many of our most basic social, professional and personal functions revolve around our use of smartphones. Providing disabled people the ability to remotely use a smartphone or other device would give many of them access they may not have previously had, and as such, these implanted BMIs would be lifechanging to such a demographic. “Like any technology, the applications of that technology prove its true value. The deciphering of the human genome has led to what we now call gene therapy or immunogene therapy where my work has been in treating brain tumors. Neuralink is a path to understanding the intricacies of the brain and decoding the brain signals, which may allow us to better understand degenerative disorders that almost every human is subject to, if they live long enough. I would like to see it interface with stem cells. The opportunities would be limitless,” Dr. Panchal says.
Still, this level of credibility and functionality does nothing to lower the red flags this has raised in the eyes of many people. Even the most tech-obsessed consumers would concede that the prospect of having brains remotely connected to computers has a science fiction lore to it. Plus, if our computers and smartphones are vulnerable to malware, how damaging would it be if that was to happen in the organ that controls our thoughts and movements?
As if this dystopian surmising is not frightening enough, these threads would be implanted by a robot instead of a neurosurgeon. And sure, Mr. Musk was behind Tesla’s launch of a self-driving car, but even the most tenured neurosurgeon is capable of botching a procedure. Moving a scalpel one millimeter can puncture a blood vessel, and a robot being behind the surgery would do nothing to remedy a patient’s overwhelming concern.
With these potential malfunctions anticipated by even the most technologically impaired laymen, it goes without saying that Neuralink’s proposed technology and procedure have both been subject to scrutiny from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). On average, the span of time that elapses between an FDA application and the FDA’s approval of the petitioned drug or device is 12 years, and since this proposal is far from average, it may take even longer. The FDA’s pre-market approval process is notoriously rigid and requires numerous studies, and because of how painstaking this process is, the agency is sifting through a massive deluge of applications that are only continuing to pile up and further clog the system.
The U.S. has arguably the most stringent regulations on pharmaceutical products and devices out of any country in the world, and as such, manufacturers spend millions of dollars in launching their products. Because these companies incur steep costs in bringing a product to market, they infamously charge consumers an exorbitant price for access. For example, earlier this year, the FDA approved a spinal muscular atrophy drug called Zolgensma®, and manufacturer Novartis broke a new record in charging $2.1 million for the treatment.
This begs the question: if Neuralink’s BMI and surgical procedure obtain a greenlight from the FDA, how much would patients have to pay for the procedure? Would the treatment only be accessible to enormously wealthy people, or does the company intend to broaden its reach to those with fewer financial resources? If the answer is the former, then to more than 99 percent of the population, this treatment might as well not even exist since it is so far out of their reach.
With all these legitimately concerning detractions stacked against Mr. Musk’s new venture, many would be compelled to argue that this potential breakthrough is not worth diving into, and that is especially true of the aforementioned naysayers who lament progress. That segment of the population, as cynical and confined to the rearview mirror as they may be, may actually have a leg to stand on. Is this really worth it, and should we be giving tech giants more license to be intrusive? “Remember this is new, and we do not know what it will really do. Neuralink will gather a vast amount of information or in the digital world, data. If this data is in the right hands, it can provide a better understanding of neuro-congenital disorders like cerebral palsy or for patients with traumatic brain and spinal cord injury. But, there is also the fear of what will happen to privacy, individual freedom and, in the near future, effects on and from artificial intelligence,” Dr. Panchal says.
After all, tech companies have already taken over our homes. They have already taken over our social lives. They even listen to our conversations. And while helping disabled people use their phones and aiding the entire discipline of neuroscience is certainly a worthwhile and enticing goal, is it worth the cost of letting tech giants into our brains? However, because of the benefits, we willingly open our lives to technological advances. Who knows what could happen if we open our minds (literally) to Neuralink. The possibilities are virtually endless.
Garrett Gravley is a Dallas-based arts and entertainment writer, journalist and music critic.