It can never be said that Elon Musk has a problem thinking big. That can be seen from his early days as one of PayPal’s primary architects to the present day, when he divides his attention between a mission to space, solar energy and electric cars. Nor can it ever be claimed that Musk is not sufficiently colorful as innovators go. He’s not the only billionaire trying to master private space travel – but he is the only one who has publicly stated his goal to die on Mars (though preferably not on impact).
So it might have been easy to see some of this week’s headlines – “Elon Musk is making implants to link the brain with a smartphone” or “Elon Musk’s Next Wild Promise” – and shrug off the announcements as “Elon being Elon.”
That would be a shame, because Neuralink’s announcement that it had created a small robot capable of implanting ultra-thin threads deep in the human brain could be the start of a big development in how consumers use and relate to technology. The potential is a whole lot bigger than making it theoretically possible to telepathically control one’s smartphone.
Sure, Musk, who has invested $100 million in Neuralink, has something of a history of making bold (if not seemingly implausible) claims. But that doesn’t make his attempt to merge the human mind with sensors essentially capable of reading it – and wirelessly transmitting and translating the data – any less interesting (or potentially revolutionary).
That is, if it can work, which is still a jump ball at this point. Also up in the air is how desirable this kind of technology would be for ordinary consumers – some have questioned whether the concept of embedding sensors in one’s brain might be a little too science fiction for all but a very rarified subset of people. It might have medical applications, but very few commercial uses.
However, a quick look at some recent advancements – particularly in biometric technologies – could make one wonder whether Neuralink’s project might actually have more mass-market appeal than anticipated.
The Deep Brain Sensor
The big-picture project, as explained by Musk last week, is the ability to implant tiny Bluetooth-enabled chips into the human brain (up to 10 at a time) connected to 1,000 wires measuring one-tenth the width of a human hair. The chip(s) connect by Bluetooth to a small computer worn over the human ear, where it transmits its data. The chips, which will theoretically connect to a phone app that the user can control, will be very small, Musk emphasized.
"If you're going to stick something in a brain, you want it to not be large," he noted.
The machine that Neuralink rolled out last week could place both the chip and the wires in a subject’s brain.
As for what the implanted devices will be able to do, that is also a bit theoretical. Broadly, in the future, Max Hodak, Neuralink’s president and co-founder, agrees with Elon Musk that many of the advances would be medical in nature: helping stroke victims or people with prosthetic limbs or neurodegenerative conditions to regain and maintain function is one area with rich potential. Musk also mentioned applications like boosting memory or brainwave-based authentication, which were slightly more next-generation use cases than Hodak was willing to affirm.
In fact, Neuralink has thus far remained as low profile as possible, though they are now ready to begin coming into the public eye.
“We want this burden of stealth mode off of us, so that we can keep building and do things like normal people, such as publish papers,” Hodak noted.
Tests to surgically implant the device have not yet begun, and only when the systems are in place and beginning to work will Neuralink really know what their product can do. That journey will be a long and careful one – though Silicon Valley tends to like to move fast and break stuff when it comes to pushing innovations, medical science is generally more circumspect. Although they will be ready to start testing next year, Neuralink is quick to note that it could be years before the device’s medical potential can be clearly demonstrated.
And, of course, Musk has bigger visions for the technology. Helping patients is just the first step – during the announcement, Musk noted that he envisions a future where pretty much everyone will get these types of implants in order to stay competitive with artificial intelligence. In his ideal scenario, we will be nearly telepathic with one another – and with our technology.
Which leads to the obvious question: Is this a future that anyone but Elon Musk is actually looking to live, or is this sort of a “dying on Mars” type of desire? Many have concluded the latter is more theoretically desirable than actually filling a normal human need. And even if this were something human beings actually wanted, they don’t want to get it from a Silicon Valley company, especially given the Theranos debacle and Facebook’s many struggles with maintaining data privacy.
Perhaps that is a solid counterpoint – though a quick glance at some of the recent innovations we’ve seen in payments and commerce imply that consumers could be a bit more open to implanted tech than one might think, and perhaps less concerned about data privacy than media reports would have one believe.
Swedish Chips and Russian Data Harvesting
If you find yourself thinking that no normal human being is looking to have technology physically implanted into themselves, we have one counter-argument for you.
Yes, the nation that brought ABBA to the world is working on its newest fad: implanting a microchip into one’s hand. Those NFC-enabled chips can save payments credentials, electronic door keys, emergency contact details, social media profiles or e-tickets. Instead of tapping a card or phone, people can just swipe the back of their hands.
Proponents of the tiny chips say they are safe, largely protected from hacking and small enough (about the size of a grain of rice) to have no negative physical impact. To get chipped, Swedish consumers pay about $180 to have the chip inserted via syringe into the skin above their thumb.
So many Swedes are reportedly lining up to get the microchips that the country's main chipping company can't keep up with the number of requests.
"Having different cards and tokens verifying your identity to a bunch of different systems just doesn't make sense," Jowan Osterlund, founder of Sweden’s large chip firm, Biohax International, told NPR. "Using a chip means that the hyper-connected surroundings that you live in every day can be streamlined.”
And though there have been concerns raised – particularly about the security of health information stored on the chips – consumers continue to embrace them due to their ease of use.
"The chip basically solves my problems," said Szilvia Varszegi, 28, who also uses it to get into her coworking space. "I see no problem for [it] becoming mainstream. I think it's something that can seriously make people's lives better.”
Inserting one’s technology, it seems, is something consumers can get excited about. And though one might want to write this off as a peculiarity of Swedes – who as a national population seem to favor digital payments and payment technology solutions at a much higher than typical rate – the case could be made that Americans can get just as comfortable with technology, even when it comes with real privacy issues, if it proves to be useful enough.
Or, in some cases, fun enough.
Earlier this week, news emerged that the virally popular FaceApp Facebook app, which digitally ages users to give them a glimpse of their senior selves, is made by a Russian app firm that may be using the harvested data in a sketchy way.
Per the user agreement: “FaceApp may transfer information that we collect about you, including personal information, across borders and from your country or jurisdiction to other countries or jurisdictions around the world.”
That means one’s photo could be used overseas – and by the Russian government, which requires backdoors into the servers of most Russian-based tech firms, according to MarketWatch. If Russian authorities wanted access to data from Wireless Lab (the firm that makes FaceApp), they could easily access it.
Has this caused Facebook users to abandon FaceApp or protest en masse?
Not really. Though the app’s usage has slid a bit, Facebook users seem to keep using it, despite the fact that handing over an image of their face opens them up to potential facial recognition, according to MarketWatch.
So will consumers embrace Neuralink’s tech, even if it is a bit on the invasive side? It is possible that early critics are right: There is such a thing as a bridge too far, and technology that is actively seeking to read your mind – and actively broadcast its contents – might just qualify as such.
But then again, what if it proves to be really useful and helpful, and is able to make consumers smarter, or help their lives run more smoothly? It’s hard to say – but it is worth noting that 100 years ago, people refused to get into cars on the argument that a metal cage propelled forward by a series of small explosions was lunacy. Ideas change, and things that seemed impossible a few generations ago have settled into the “new normal” faster than one might have thought possible.
Especially if you live in Sweden.