Artificial intelligence (AI) is being applied across a wide variety of industries today. It is revolutionary in that it can process large amounts of data faster than any human can, analyze it, and then use the results to make decisions. One of the industries that is currently exploring AI’s possibilities is medicine. AI is already in use in some medical fields, such as predictive wound healing and the coding of patients’ records.
In a more recent example of AI’s usefulness, it has been recruited in the fight against the coronavirus (COVID-19) in a number of versatile and innovative ways. AI-based systems are being used in some hospitals to screen potential patients and assess infection risks, and to help make sure that resources reach those patients who need them most. Additionally, AI has been employed with great success in identifying, diagnosing, and tracking virus outbreaks, with AI software such as Natural Language Processing (NLP), Machine Learning (ML), and location monitoring in use to identify places where outbreaks are likely to occur.
Zhongnan Hospital in China made use of AI to screen lung CT scans during the height of the crisis, which helped doctors to determine which patients needed to be prioritized for further testing. And BarabasiLab has been employing AI in conjunction with network science as part of its research efforts aimed at finding drugs that could be used to fight the coronavirus. After only ten days, BarabasiLab’s researchers had a list of drugs that could be tested for use in human cell lines.
But while AI is already proving its usefulness in helping health professionals to care for their patients more effectively, other researchers are looking for ways to bring it into the world of treatment – and eventually, perhaps human enhancement. Elon Musk’s Neuralink company is one such initiative, which is seeking to develop ways of building interfaces between the human brain and machines with the aim of helping patients who have suffered catastrophic injuries to regain normal lives. The idea is not original to Neuralink, however; already in 2006, a patient suffering from spinal cord paralysis, Matthew Nagle, was able to use a brain implant to play the computer game Pong using only his thoughts.
Neuralink is a neurotechnological start-up that was founded in San Francisco in 2016 and which receives most of its funding from well-known entrepreneur and philanthropist Elon Musk, perhaps most famous for his role in founding the first private company to conduct orbital rocket launches, SpaceX. Neuralink’s stated aim is to develop brain-machine interfaces or BMIs. NeuraLink initially wants to use BMIs to treat patients who have suffered brain injuries or trauma by enabling them to control electronic devices with their thoughts. If this is successful, the company could potentially develop interfaces to be used for enhancing human performance in the future rather than only wound care.
Neuralink’s public presentations to date
Neuralink has always remained highly secretive about its work. In July 2019, however, it presented an experimental device at the California Academy of Sciences which could potentially receive data wirelessly from embedded electrodes connected to the neurons in a human brain. These electrodes will come in the form of threads which are ten times thinner than a human hair. These threads are small enough that they minimize the risk of damaging the surrounding tissue, which is a problem inherent in the current brain/machine interfaces used in artificial prosthetics.
Potentially, these electrodes could eventually be implanted such that an individual could control a mechanical device such as a phone or computer using thought alone. While Neuralink’s current electrodes are not yet capable of receiving signals from individual neurons, only from groups of neurons, the initial presentation was promising. In the July 2019 presentation, Musk himself disclosed the fact that Neuralink’s researchers had already managed to implant the electrodes in a monkey’s brain, and that it successfully operated a computer using the interface. Thus far, however, Neuralink’s team has only been able to achieve the interface using wires, but the ultimate aim is for their interfaces to be completely wireless. Musk further reported that their interface had been tested on 19 different animals, with an 87% success rate in controlling robots.
The presentation also reported that Neuralink’s researchers hope to develop innovative new ways of planting the electrodes in patients’ brains, such as by using laser beams to penetrate the skull rather than drills, as is the case today. Musk said that he hoped the technique would be ready for testing in a human brain by the end of 2020.
Musk also made it clear that Neuralink’s ultimate goal is to establish a symbiotic relationship between the human brain and AI, believing that this is the best way of ensuring that humans don’t get “left behind” as AI’s abilities inevitably surpass their own, believing that a merging of the two is the best way forward. This will be accomplished by installing BMIs throughout a human brain and using them to read its neuron signals in their entirety. Neuralink’s AI, if successful, will be capable of processing the enormous amount of data involved and analyze it in order to learn how to communicate with the rest of the body.
On August 29 of this year, after building up expectations on social media, Musk presented Neuralink’s first live demonstration of its progress thus far, showing his implants – currently approximately the size of a coin – at work in a live pig named Gertrude. Musk indicated that Gertrude had been fitted with the implant for two months, and he displayed real-time neural signals which she transmitted through the interface. Musk described the device as being “like a Fitbit in your skull.”
Musk further expounded on his hopes that the operation to install a Neuralink BMI could eventually be performed entirely by a robot in less than an hour. He also stated that ideally, the procedure would not require any anesthetic and would not result in any blood loss or excessive scarring.
Musk has expressed high hopes for the technology’s potential. If it is eventually perfected and successfully tested on humans, Neuralink’s BMIs could address a wide variety of disabling health problems, including restoring limb function, addressing eyesight or hearing loss issues, and overcoming the complications presented by chronic diseases such as Parkinson’s. In August 2019, Musk indicated that Neuralink’s researchers are currently focusing on ways of addressing blindness, memory loss, and paralysis.
While many ethical and safety issues remain to be addressed, it seems likely that AI in medicine is here to stay, and will eventually become part of the healthcare professional’s arsenal of tools to help patients overcome disease and injury.
Elliot Figueira is an experienced analyst and journalist with a passion for technology and innovation. With over seven years of experience in digital content creation, Elliot has written for major tech blogs, entertainment news sites, healthcare and wound care innovation sites, marketing companies, and for many other companies and industries. Elliot enjoys having the opportunity to research new inventions and developments over the course of his workdays. In his mind, one of the best things about writing for a living is the chance to learn new things every single day. Outside of writing, Elliot enjoys science-fiction literature and cultivating various types of cacti.