05.08.17 | Neuralink

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Academy (DARPA) in early 2016  set its sights on the holy grail of the data world i.e. bridging the Bio-Electronic divide:

"A new DARPA program aims to develop an implantable neural interface able to provide unprecedented signal resolution and data-transfer bandwidth between the human brain and the digital world. The interface would serve as a translator, converting between the electrochemical language used by neurons in the brain and the ones and zeros that constitute the language of information technology. The goal is to achieve this communication link in a biocompatible device no larger than one cubic centimeter in size, roughly the volume of two nickels stacked back to back."

This $60 million so-called Neural Engineering System Design (NESD) would initially fund the integrated breakthroughs across the numerous necessary disciplines including neuroscience, synthetic biology, low-power electronics, photonics, medical device packaging and manufacturing, systems engineering, and clinical testing. It would host the collaborative "pre-competition" sharing of research and information technology among industry participants enabling them to transition into later application spaces.

Application spaces: think augmented brain memory, compensation for deficits in sight or hearing, direct integration of artificial intelligence, inter-human digital communication of the senses, upload/download to/from the cloud of so much of what we regard as the human experience. The implications stagger the imagination.

We'll first discuss at our next session what all this might mean. Perhaps twenty years hence when we talk to our grandchildren we will even cite this very date as the time we first heard about this whole phenomenon. And just as with the iPhone today they will roll their eyes and strain just to imagine a life before true augmented reality and trans-human connection. The difference, though, is previous technological breakthroughs redefined what future humans would do -- direct neural integration would redefine what future humans will be. Talk about a path to the evolution of consciousness.

If the implications are staggering so are the challenges. It's downright daunting for us mere mortals to even contemplate the extent of the necessary multi-disciplinary breakthroughs. Enter Elon Musk. He's taken the bait and announced Neuralink, a challenge that dwarfs anything else he's yet undertaken, including the colonization of Mars.

Should there be interest we'll then devote six future Member Monday sessions -- one per month  -- to what he's up against. Our roadmap is the subject of a remarkable article "Neuralink and the Brain's Magical Future", the introduction to which is set forth below. We'll then come to a decision point i.e. whether or not to take a deep dive into what's entailed, including a fundamental understanding of the brain. The referenced article breaks all this down into six parts (identified and linked in the introduction below). Do not be fooled by the initial stick-figure simplicity at the outset -- the progression is similar to elementary school arithmetic leading to differential equations and String Theory. 

I hope we take the plunge. Otherwise we'll leave the Member Monday (5/8) session as a one-off exercise of our collective imagination and regard the rest as just pure magic.         

Neuralink and the Brain’s Magical Future

Last month, I got a phone call.

Okay maybe that’s not exactly how it happened, and maybe those weren’t his exact words. But after learning about the new company Elon Musk was starting, I’ve come to realize that that’s exactly what he’s trying to do.

When I wrote about Tesla and SpaceX, I learned that you can only fully wrap your head around certain companies by zooming both way, way in and way, way out. In, on the technical challenges facing the engineers, out on the existential challenges facing our species. In on a snapshot of the world right now, out on the big story of how we got to this moment and what our far future could look like.

Not only is Elon’s new venture—Neuralink—the same type of deal, but six weeks after first learning about the company, I’m convinced that it somehow manages to eclipse Tesla and SpaceX in both the boldness of its engineering undertaking and the grandeur of its mission. The other two companies aim to redefine what future humans will do—Neuralink wants to redefine what future humans will be.

The mind-bending bigness of Neuralink’s mission, combined with the labyrinth of impossible complexity that is the human brain, made this the hardest set of concepts yet to fully wrap my head around—but it also made it the most exhilarating when, with enough time spent zoomed on both ends, it all finally clicked. I feel like I took a time machine to the future, and I’m here to tell you that it’s even weirder than we expect.

But before I can bring you in the time machine to show you what I found, we need to get in our zoom machine—because as I learned the hard way, Elon’s wizard hat plans cannot be properly understood until your head’s in the right place.

So wipe your brain clean of what it thinks it knows about itself and its future, put on soft clothes, and let’s jump into the vortex.


Part 1: The Human Colossus

Part 2: The Brain

Part 3: Brain-Machine Interfaces

Part 4: Neuralink’s Challenge

Part 5: The Wizard Era

Part 6: The Great Merger

Steve SmithComment