Elon Musk is having a hard time at the moment. Amid all the sound and fury, however, it’s sometimes easy to forget that he’s constantly coming up with new, visionary ideas, including the Hyperloop. Another future endeavor that may have been lost in the noise involves a so-called “neural lace,” an interface that links human brains with computer software.
After discussing the possibility of such a device at Code Conference in California this June, Musk took to Twitter to update the world on the idea. He claims that a neural lace will help humans “achieve symbiosis with machines,” a subset of a movement known as transhumanism.
According to Inverse, Musk’s invention will be a computer interface woven into the brain, allowing the user to access, for example, the Internet just by thinking, and even perhaps store backups of a person’s mind in case the person physically dies. By being wirelessly enabled, the device could allow us to write, paint, and communicate just by thinking.
It could either be passive, representing an implanted, glorified smartphone, or it could be active and directly communicate back and forth with our mind by interfering with our brain’s thought patterns. Musk is a firm believer that artificial intelligence (AI) will outmaneuver our own in the future, and this could be seen as a way of allowing us to “team up” with it – to keep pace with it, so we aren’t left behind.
Amazingly, this idea isn’t new. Far from just appearing in a range of science fiction novels, several actual organizations are giving it a go already.
One of them is the US military’s scientific division, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Not content with developing autonomous robotic soldiers capable of empathy, or vampire drones that disappear in sunlight, the secretive military department has long been interested in brain implants that “fix” neurological damage sustained in warfare, and a neural interface is the next step up from this.
The brain operates using electrical signals, and although they are generated biochemically, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be compatible with computer systems. The key difference is that a computer system uses binary signals, whereas a human brain converts billions upon billions of bioelectrochemical conductions into abstract thoughts and concrete actions every single second. You don’t have to be Musk to realize that there’s a huge technical gap that needs to be surmounted.
Still, thought-controlled prosthetics are a real-life invention, so it’s not unrealistic to think that, eventually, humans and computers could communicate effectively. However, these limbs move with a moderate degree of precision based on a few tens of thousands of electrical neural impulses. The brain involves magnitudes more than this, so at the moment, the technology is relatively primitive.
His latest tweet suggests that he’s “making progress” on the idea, and he may be about to announce something in the next few months. He does have a few more pressing issues to navigate, however, such as the deeply unfortunate SpaceX-related fireball.
There’s a long way to go, then, before this neural lace becomes a reality. In the meantime, Musk is clearly still keeping in touch with his more grounded, Earth-bound side.