noun /ˈbrān kəm-ˈpyü-tər ˈin-tər-ˌfās/
a direct-communication pathway between
an enhanced or wired brain and an external device
is on the horizon
An AI expert recently declared (or speculated) that “brain implants” in our heads could make learning obsolete in 20 years. No more need to Google. Ask anything in any language and the answer will instantly pop into your head. Google and an infinitely smart assistant will be implanted in your head. Medical science already is moving in that direction with cutting-edge research in brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) backed by AI. For now, however, the research focuses on neurological diseases and trauma to the nervous system that take away patients’ abilities to speak, move, and interact with people and their environments.
In the future, BCIs can not only drastically improve quality of life for millions of patients with ALS, strokes, spinal-cord injuries and other serious ailments, but be life-changing for everyone as “brain implants.” Just ask Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk about the potential of BCIs. Two years ago Musk founded Neuralink to create BCI devices that could be implanted in the brain. He called Neuralink the merger of biological intelligence with digital intelligence. Already, this year, Neuralink scientists have described a way of rapidly implanting wires into the brains of rats—and someday in the future, humans.
Musk’s otherwise rather dark vision of an AI-enabled future includes humanity benefiting from brain-computer unification that incorporates the sum-total of scientific and technical knowledge from various domains. In the near future, Musk’s vision is that, with the help of AI, neural-networks and deep learning, computers can significantly augment human expertise in solving major societal problems in developing regions of the world.
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Shortages of trained healthcare providers for life-saving care in developing nations are a perpetual crisis. For example, more radiologists work within a few blocks of downtown Boston than in all of West Africa. AI can leverage imaging tools to take over the diagnostic duties of clinicians and, in the process, achieve the highest levels of accuracy for TB diagnosis anywhere—in developing countries and in Boston or the West. Equally important: diseases vary in the way that they impact different countries, and AI can account for the diversity of disease impacting different populations and regions.
For another example, antibiotic resistance is a growing threat to populations around the world as overuse of critical drugs fosters the evolution of superbugs that no longer respond to treatments. Multi-drug resistant organisms claim thousands of lives every year and account for billions in annual costs, even in the U.S. Machine learning and AI tools can play a key role in identifying infection sources, patterns, and risks, and communicating alerts to healthcare providers.
Elon Musk’s ideas about BCI periodically cropping up in the news range between inspiring and lunatic, but are always ambitious and fascinating. From reusable intergalactic rockets to tunnels under L.A., billionaire Musk’s visionary enterprises (Tesla, SpaceX, the Boring Company) border on sci-fi. Neuralink certainly qualifies as one of them—linking brains to computers and other high-tech gadgets.
Musk’s view of brain-to-machine interfaces (BCIs) would not only increase our capabilities to control and compete with the future impacts of AI, but would have other benefits as well, such as new treatments to neurological diseases and wearable devices that can actuate movement for prosthetic arms or legs.
Musk’s “ultra-high bandwidth brain-machine interfaces to connect humans and computers” are aimed at enabling human brains to keep pace with AI. To start with, Neuralink already is developing a system for people suffering paralysis that allows actions to be performed just by thinking about them. With FDA approval, human trials could begin in 2020. But that’s only a small step towards Musk’s much grander goal: “achiev[ing] a sort of symbiosis with A.I.” as a human option.
Musk hasn’t discussed whether Neuralink’s access to brains would include protection of personal information against hackers. No doubt all of us would want assurances that out brain implants are protected from hackers. When some of us brainstorm, could our brains overheat or even explode? Musk has told us that brain links probably would be installed by special robots, but will faulty surgery by a robot be covered by insurance? And if our brains are generating weird thoughts, what will Neuralink’s technology do with them?
If some of us have questions and concerns about Musk’s Neurolink, what about Facebook’s research and plans for a wearable, brain-reading computer interface, a so-called “speech decoder” capable of understanding what a person wants to say through analysis of their brain signals? Although the focus of Facebook’s research has been patients with speech loss due to paralysis, who knows where this technology can and will go in the future.
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The Rev. Canon Cindy Evans Voorhees
St. James Faith Lab