An AI Takeover: Analyzing Neuralink’s Drawbacks and Realistic Expectations
Imagine a small piece of technology that could completely prevent brain disorders, allow direct movements with neurological thoughts, and possibly create a connection between the human brain and artificial intelligence. This technological innovation is the goal of a new brain chip currently under development at Neuralink, a company founded by tech mogul Elon Musk that designs artificial intelligence. Although it could become a reality with the company’s current moves, it is very unlikely to occur at the present moment. There are several unsolved issues that the company has yet to address, meaning that this device is far from being a finished and available product for the general public. This research will show that Neuralink needs to take serious action on the issues presented to achieve their promised objectives and become an accessible product in the future. Ryan Cvelbar, gives an overall look into how the brain chip exactly works, and then goes into both its more attainable applications and some of its more unlikely capabilities. Meanwhile, Anna Wexlerelaborates on various drawbacks she finds worthy concern and believes are necessary for Neuralink and other brain machine interface (BMI) companies to address. Likewise, Eric Fourneret addresses issues he feels are rarely examined by most media literature and thinks deserve attention due to their heavy significance in the field of biomechanics. Drawing upon this literature review, this paper interrogates the research of these three accredited researchers, who havefocused on different aspects of Neuralink, ranging from a general background of the device to a more extensive analysis of the specific drawbacks that this technology could have.
Cvelbar breaks down Neuralink’s technology and how the chip essentially functions. In his assessment of the company’s technology, he explains what scientists know about brain signals and how they relay information back and forth. According to Cvelbar, “most importantly in understanding the science behind Musk’s new technology is the fact that everything that happens in the brain is governed by electrical signals that are relayed from one neuron to another through action potentials that travel down the neuron’s axon.”1 He continues by explaining how the brain chip works, stating, “the micro-sized wires of the Neuralink chip have multiple electrodes on their tips that allow them to record electrical signals that are fired between the brain’s neurons and transmit information to the chip to instruct external technology wirelessly through Bluetooth.”2
This clarification of how different types of technology work gives the consumer a logical viewpoint when deciding on whether they want to purchase this device in the future.3 After explaining both the scientific background and technicalities of the device, Cvelbar reviews some of the practical applications and goals that the company has for the device. These include the ability to treat memory loss, paralysis, brain damage, strokes, and even seizures. However, after mentioning these more practical applications, Cvelbar moves into some he finds far-fetched, such as visual prosthesis, conceptual telepathy, the elimination of pain, and solving mental illnesses. Cvelbar draws on an assessment of Neuralink’s technology from Antonio Regalado, a biomedicine editor for the MIT Technology Review, who argues that we don’t have enough information to determine which electrochemical imbalance creates each disease in the human body; researchers need to ascertain these causes before these applications can be made possible.4 To conclude, Cvelbar mentions how Neuralink must learn from past BMI technologies if it wants to be successful in the future, implying the company faces challenges it must address if it has any hope of resolving the issues it’s outlined.
Wexler concentrates on these specific challenges. She notes that the public would be hesitant and quite unlikely to adopt a device requiring neurosurgery, stating that even though Neuralink is working on a safer method of implantation with the assistance of a robot that could inject the tiny threads into the brain, there will never be a completely risk-free method when it comes to implanting a device in the human brain. She addresses that Musk envisions Neuralink being similar to LASIK surgery, a way to correct someone’s vision that is commonly used today. Wexler points out that for Neuralink to someday be as popular as LASIK, it needs to add a significant enough value to someone’s life to warrant cranial implantation.
Wexler notes an additional drawback she believes would affect the success of Neuralink: Controlling a device such as a mouse or keyboard with a brain chip will likely prove more taxing than just typically using them. She states, “a neurotech device would need to demonstrate superiority over current methods of human-computer interaction to gain market traction.”5 Towards the end of her write-up, Wexler comments on how the media centers their attention on sensationalizing brain privacy instead of the more practical issues that she confronts. She claims that the personal data gathered about almost every person is currently being collected and sold with little to no protection. Some of this information, such as search engine history, emails, and notes are more revealing about a person than neural data will probably ever be.6 Wexler continues to bring up some drawbacks and critical ideas that have not been mentioned in any other academic journals, making her work an important part of the discussion and essential for this review.
Finally, Fourneret focuses on three key issues that he believes to be rarely analyzed by other researchers and deserve to be more closely looked at: 1) Neuralink’s enhancement claims, 2) its hybridization capability, and 3) its ethical stance on the product. His first point explains that the enhancement aspect of the Neuralink device is more of a marketing strategy for economic gain than a verified medical benefit to the people it is supposed to help. He finds that these enhancement claims are a way to gain more attention and, “in this important market, dominated by the big players like Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft, it is necessary to be seen and heard. Naturally, Neuralink must also adhere to this mantra of the liberal economy.”7 Here, Fourneret explains that Neuralink is making these exaggerated claims to gain recognition in a technological market with many top-tier companies that control most of the competition, rather than these enhancements being authenticated.
Fourneret also doubts whether the hybridization that Neuralink is trying to do between humans and AI is possible or realistic. He explains that it is necessary to create a new technology as a bridge between human organisms and specialized machines for this hybridization to occur, and this technological bridge doesn’t currently exist.
Moving into the final problem that Fourneret brings up, he thinks the company lacks the integration of ethical reflection on how this scientific technology will affect future societies. He states, “The doors of laboratories must be kept open to the recruitment of philosophers and other experts in the human and social sciences…we are quite right to ask again and again for a significant recruitment of philosophers, anthropologists, and sociologists by scientific laboratories where technological objects are designed and developed.”8 By widely spreading a piece of technology and observing its effect and impact on society, both the company’s product and the science behind its innovations can be improved. Without letting these philosophers work together with the company and deal with the ethical concerns of the device, such as its susceptibility to hacks or unauthorized control, society will continue to be bothered by these issues and never fully accept the technology for its true purpose.
Overall, these three researchers prove that Neuralink is not prepared for public release. Considering everything it is trying to accomplish, the device has great potential, but it still requires these problematic drawbacks to be closely examined and corrected. Some might say that looking at these issues is a waste of time and not as important as it is being made out to be. Still, without adequately acting upon these issues, the likelihood of disastrous or life-threatening effects occurring is almost inevitable, such as the chance of permanent brain damage or even death. The idea of someone being able to control another or access their personal information is frightening in itself, so who knows what could happen if this occurred. As a recent Neuroethics publication stated, “criminals could hack into individuals’ brain computer interfaces (BCIs), or prisoners of war could be subjected to unwanted neural recording or neurostimulation. The capacity to act directly on the brains of one’s enemies sets up a potentially problematic kind of control.”9 The brain is vital to the lives of humans, so extensive care and thought must be taken into account when dealing with it in any regard. Hopefully, Neuralink is already thinking about these possibilities and considers every bit of research that has been discussed here and from various other accredited researchers that have also closely analyzed the product.
In the future, further research can work to improve upon the drawbacks addressed in this review to make Neuralink more of a possibility. For example, the safety of the implant surgery is actively being tested, with the robot that can safely inject the tiny threads from the chip into the brain. Ultimately, even though Neuralink has made many strides over the past few years and is an auspicious piece of technology that could impact future societies in a multitude of ways, it still has a lot to work on in its current state and is quite far from total completion right now.
1. Cvelbar, R. (2020). “A Fitbit for your brain”-Elon Musk, sci-fi or attainable?. Osmosis Magazine, 2020(2), 15-16. Retrieved from https://scholarship.richmond.edu/osmosis/vol2020/iss2/9
2. Cyelbar, 15.
3. See note above.
4. Cyelbar, 16.
5. Wexler, A. (2021). A skeptic’s take on Neuralink and other consumer neurotech. Boston Globe Media Partners, LLC. Retrieved from http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/other-sources/skeptic-s-take-on-neuralink-other-consumer/docview/2618522413/se-2?accountid=14244
6. See note above.
7. Fourneret, E. (2020). The hybridization of the human with brain implants: The Neuralink project. Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics, 29(4), 668-672. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0963180120000419
8. See note above.
9. Goering, S., Klein, E., Specker Sullivan, L., Wexler, A., Agüera y Arcas, B., Bi, G., Carmena, J. M., Fins, J. J., Friesen, P., Gallant, J., Huggins, J. E., Kellmeyer, P., Marblestone, A., Mitchell, C., Parens, E., Pham, M., Rubel, A., Sadato, N., Teicher, M., . . . Yuste, R. (2021). Recommendations for responsible development and application of neurotechnologies. Neuroethics, 14(3), 365-386. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12152-021-09468-6