On January 29th local time, Elon Musk announced that his brain-computer interface company, Neuralink, has successfully performed the first human implantation of a brain-machine interface device. The first patient is reported to be recovering well. Musk revealed that the initial product will be named “Link,” a device that, once implanted into the brain, would allow control of smartphones and computers using just thoughts. This in turn could control nearly every other device, with individuals who have lost limb functions being the first batch of users.
So, what exactly is a brain-computer interface? What’s its future like? And will we really see memory chips in the future?
Previously on The Surge Q&A, experts explained brain-computer interfaces and the concept of memory chips to the online community.
How incredible is the Brain-Computer Interface?
@RelaxBin: What exactly is brain-computer interface technology?
Xiao Xiao: A brain-computer interface (BCI) typically involves using electrodes to create a communication link between the human brain and external devices (like computers). It has both output and input modes. Output refers to collecting neural signals from the brain to control external devices, and input involves sending information from the external world into the brain as stimuli, ultimately allowing human-machine interaction.
Musk announced on social platform X that the first human has received a Neuralink implant.
@MintShell: What’s the development history of brain-computer interface technology? Is it really possible to read minds via ultrasound?
Xiao Xiao: Brain-computer interface technology was initially developed for clinical therapy and has been used in advanced neuroscience research. It was applied in neurorehabilitation back in the 1980s. For instance, cochlear implants for restoring hearing are quite mature, and the latest models can process complex auditory signals, allowing a certain degree of language recognition. “Artificial retinas” may restore patients’ light perception and shape recognition, enabling them to read under certain conditions. These are examples of using BCIs for inputting signals into the brain.
Others restore output signals, like using BCIs in prosthetic limbs to allow people with limb impairments to regain basic movement and daily functionalities. There are two main types of neural prosthetic BCIs: invasive, which is embedded into the peripheral or central nervous system, and non-invasive.
When you mention “ultrasound mind reading,” it’s not an accurate term. Generally, various electromagnetic or ultrasonic devices are used to regulate the brain for more precise control, and to treat diseases. However, mind-reading primarily utilizes invasive BCI technology. By positioning sensors in different areas of the brain’s cortex and connecting them to a computer, the neural electrical code is deciphered to facilitate thought communication.
A notable experiment took place in 2016, when neuroscientists from Utrecht University Medical Centre helped a woman with locked-in syndrome, caused by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), named de Bruijne, communicate without assistance. After 28 weeks of BCI implantation, de Bruijne could independently control a computer typing program with her mind, typing approximately 2 letters per minute with a 95% accuracy rate. This allowed her to communicate without speaking.
Will memory chips really be a thing in the future?
@LittleBunny: How do chips connect to the human brain?
Yu Xin Pan: Current technology tested on animals to read neuronal activity might involve implanting electrodes to record electrical signals within the brain directly, inserting optical fibers, or creating a window in the skull and expressing a fluorescent protein indicator of neuronal activity. Recording changes in the brightness of this protein with CCD cameras or microscopes indirectly measures the neurons’ activity. So, the connection between chips and the human brain could be through electrodes (this is somewhat commonly used clinically) or optical fibers.
@MonkCalculation: Could memory chips be a possibility in the future? If they are, would copying a person’s lifetime of memories and transplanting them be akin to eternal life? Would it change the way we judge education and knowledge?
Yu Xin Pan: I believe there’s a possibility. Human memory has a physical basis; if we can locate where and how these memories are stored, in theory, they could be transplanted onto a chip. However, transplanting memories wouldn’t equate to eternal life—it would only maintain a state at a certain moment. Our memories change as we live; to me, eternal life implies continuing mental “metabolism,” where these memories can still interact and update with external information. The impact on education would be substantial, diminishing the value of rote memorization and emphasizing comprehension, understanding of principles, and mastery of methods.
@FattenedtoEat: Can memory chips directly input subjects like language, math, and English? If so, is there still a need for schooling? Could the role of teachers be gradually phased out by technology?
Yu Xin Pan: Some purely memory-based information might be quickly input through so-called memory chips, but subjects like mathematics, physics, and chemistry involve a lot of thinking and understanding that go beyond memorization and can’t be simply addressed. Schooling is still necessary, and the content of learning will likely change significantly. Teachers will still be needed for guidance and clarification, but their focus will shift, and the skills required will be higher, demanding more time spent on education.
@GalaxyDevilWarrior: Could the brain be compartmentalized like computers are today, with the native brain only handling functions like CPU, GPU, and memory, and memory chips taking on the role of hard drives?
Yu Xin Pan: Have you considered that our brain processing speed is slower than computers? The advantage of the brain may lie in parallel processing, randomness, noise, and sparks of creativity and inspiration. In the future, perhaps even the CPU, GPU, and memory functions might be outsourced.
@SwordLightPigeon: Would implanted memories include emotions? For instance, when we recall something, we often feel a certain way about it. Since memories can be implanted, can they also be removed?
Yu Xin Pan: You’re correct, memories involve more than just text and images; they’re panoramically interconnected (perhaps the interlinking of neurons), and activating one element inevitably triggers others. Artificially implanting memories will naturally impact the brain and could be compared to the rejection seen in organ transplants. In terms of memory retrieval, we need to understand the memories to implant them correctly into specific areas and structures within the brain. If you can’t read the memories, how will you know how to implant them?