What Neuralink Means for the Future of the Neuroscience Industry

Sheeta Verma
Futurism
Neuralink Event

We watched the Neuralink event -- here’s what you can realistically expect in the next 3-5 years.

Brain-computer interfaces (BCI) entered a wider consumer spotlight when the Neuralink team unveiled their early-stage results of testing with invasive BCI for the first time. Founded by tech billionaire Elon Musk back in 2016, the demo featured an BCI chip implanted inside a pig’s brain during their live-broadcasted event. The feat, as quoted by Musk in the Verge, was more for recruiting efforts rather than a scientific demo. Consumer BCI has been fraught with overhyped promises, underwhelming capabilities, and inaccessible concepts/language/developments. The very nature of this area of work distorts public perception given preconceived expectations of “the force” or mind control when prompted by “neurotechnology.” This leads consumers to wonder what we can realistically expect to see in the next 3-5 years in the BCI or neurotech industry. To help clarify concepts, we consulted with our own in-house industry experts at Neurable, as well as the expertise of Dr. Alik S. Widge at the University of Minnesota to get their take on what’s to come in this field. 

Invasive BCI isn’t a new concept, but its application for a widespread consumer audience is still a ways off. Currently, there are a few consumer-facing companies that are immediately offering benefits for consumers through noninvasive applications.

While the concept of an invasive BCI, an implanted chip, is not new, it’s still not a consumer-facing reality either. In the meantime, consumers can turn to noninvasive BCI options to experience the benefits within BCI technology.

Much like its founder’s other projects (Tesla and SpaceX), the Neuralink project is ambitious. 

“He is not afraid of betting big, and this has allowed him to push the envelope to the maximum and succeed,” says Dr. Ali Yousefi, a lead scientist at Neurable. “I think we can all agree that Tesla is a technological advancement that’s leading to more success.” 

An all-in approach is not one to take lightly, and naturally lights up press mentions with its take. Consumers expressed concerns on what this means to the future of privacy – with an invasive approach naturally driving comparisons to science-fiction shows like Black Mirror. The minute you embed something directly into someone’s skull, you cross a boundary that hasn’t yet been widely discussed. 

A question of ethics

Musk’s Neuralink project is in the early stages of live experimentation, beginning with cranial implants in pigs in order to gain an understanding of how our brains work and how they can be interpreted.  

While this public instance of invasive BCIs may be new to some, research on brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) is not. BCI technology is primarily used for research or medical applications. There has been limited success in consumer BCI applications and products, which either succeeded due to novelty or extremely niche use cases, such as meditation. At Neurable, we aim to change this reality and provide a valuable, dependable, and easy to use neural interface wearable with our everyday BCI product. Take – for example – the BrainGate research program at Brown University, which is researching the power of BCI technology and its use in prosthetics. Similarly, there are many companies that are actively involved in the BCI scene and have already released products using the power of BCI.

Neuralink poses a question of perception in the larger neurotech industry due to its prominence and position. The publicity and theatrical positioning that Neuralink has demonstrated make BCI technology seem a little too good to be true, especially when the benefits are not yet clear along with the potential risks that may come with the implant. Considering the relevant ramifications of touting a technology that’s not quite ready for the consumer market yet; especially when non-invasive BCI’s have made themselves more available for a consumer market share for some time. 

Our earliest work at Neurable proved that BCI is able to move beyond laboratory settings, as demonstrated widely in an event with MIT Tech Review. The conversation about the consumer potential of BCI’s is here but begs the question – when is an invasive BCI most relevant and beneficial? 

When might an invasive BCI be beneficial? 

Invasive BCI’s largest claim to fame comes with the potential to help those with existing mental, emotional, and neurological conditions. Initial studies have shown that “...BCI technology may allow individuals unable to speak and/or use their limbs to once again communicate or operate assistive devices for walking and manipulating objects.” However, these studies are in fairly preliminal stages; even Musk doesn’t see the technology as being quite there yet. During the Neuralink demo, the technology was pitched as a preventative measure, rather than a remedy. 

“Typically when looking at types of remedies towards chronic pain that has the smallest amount of interference on our daily lives will always be the most favorable,” Dr. Ali Yousefi, lead scientist at Neurable said, “The same story could be told with invasive and non-invasive BCIs as well; if we determine that BCI technology plays a role in preventive medicine, we can predict that a noninvasive option would be preferred in comparison to an invasive option.” 

Neurological disorders are a challenge for physicians to cure and even more of a challenge for the patients that live with the uncertainty. Industry leaders are in agreement that this application of BCI technology still needs further research conducted. 

Experts in non-invasive BCI have not only created opportunities for a more accessible world, but also provide us with further understanding of how our brain works. Without requiring any implant or surgery, scientists working in non-invasive BCI implementations have already been able to allow individuals suffering from disabilities to improve or recover their mobility and communication within the surrounding environment [source]. We’ve also unlocked further understanding behind how our brain works, by taking a look at how signals are processed within the brain itself. 

Thanks to recent BCI research, we’ve unlocked how our brain’s internal state makes decisions, where motor signals are located, and even what our brain replays in our sleep. While practical application of these findings is still to come, the research moves the field forward as a whole. 

That does not mean that invasive BCI efforts are too far off; cochlear implants, and prostheses are two variants that are currently actively in practice today. The future of neurotechnology is closer than one may realize. 

“Invasive BCI might be helpful for people with neurologic disease, injury, or limb loss,” Dr. Yousefi said. “However, objectives like boosting human intelligence or enhancing interaction bandwidth first need a deeper understanding of the brain and cognition with invasive BCIs as just one part of a larger puzzle.” 

Putting the puzzle pieces together

The BCI industry is expected to be a nearly $4 billion-dollar industry by 2027, leaving room for growth, with opportunities in both medicinal and consumer markets. Noninvasive BCI technology is already on the market in the form of wearable devices, helping individuals gain a better understanding of themselves. 

This does not mean that invasive BCI companies like Neuralink don't serve a purpose, Dr. Ramses Alcaide envisions the future of companies like Neuralink as essential towards creating a structure and forecast of what’s to come.

“As for Neuralink, it is clear that their initial goal is to consolidate the work of many research institutions and create plausible functional systems that demonstrate how far we can currently go,” said Dr. Ramses Alcaide, “Elon’s team provides high hopes that they will be working and translating their technology to humans.”

Alcaide also alludes to the fact that there is a lot of work to still be done. The technology for widespread adoption of invasive BCI’s like Neuralink hasn’t hit human trials yet, and there are still lines to be drawn in regards to consumer-facing invasive BCIs. 

We don't expect brain surgery to be the go-to for the next 20-50 years. In the next 10 years we can expect to see continuous progress in material biocompatibility, increased electrode density, and optimistically lab use of prosthetic devices and human trials,” Dr. Alcaide said, “Theses are all necessary steps toward creating the incredible future invasive BCI companies have to offer.”

EXTRA WORD BANK HERE

What to expect from the neuroscience industry

It’s a lot more than just Neuralink

The future of neuroscience isn’t invasive. 

What Neuralink means for the future of the Neuroscience Industry

Understanding what’s realistically possible with Brain Computer Interfaces in 2020.

In today’s world, we spend a lot of our time and money on devices that promise to  improve our lifestyles. We’re optimistic that BCI technology can become one of the ways that we make our technology even smarter.  Working seamlessly with how our mind and body operates allows us to gain a better understanding of ourselves by reporting our way of living. 

 Invasive BCI’s offer increased potential for deep brain stimulation, a type of invasive implant that hopes to allow those suffering from movement disorders to regain functionality. 

So… does it work?

“I think in brief, what I can say is that the Neuralink as proposed looks like an interesting technology for reliable cortical interfacing,” Dr. Yousefi said, “It might provide a new platform that will advance motor decoding and sensory prosthetics. It is not looking like a very useful technology for treating psychiatric disorders, because it is not clear if the same approach can be used to go after the deep brain. Deep, subsurface structures are critical to emotion, cognition, and the impairments of mental illness.”

Even Musk mentions the Neuralink device will not be ready for a few years yet. However, the flashy demo does have us all intrigued as to what’s to come in the future of neurotechnology. We also have working examples of both invasive and noninvasive BCI’s in a medical format, but pivoting them to a more consumer-facing market has yet to widely be adopted yet.  As a team, we’re confident that the science is there, it’s more of a matter of who can communicate its effectiveness yet. At Neurable we know that the science is there and has proven it’s effectiveness, we are now working on bringing that knowledge to the consumer and show it in a modern day format. 

The possibility of noninvasive BCI While Neuralink is focused on the invasive BCI, we’re looking at the noninvasive BCI and how it can best help individuals in their daily lives.  There’s a few current advantages to the noninvasive BCI, the most prominent being the lack of surgical adoption needed in order to function.

Where we see the future of noninvasive BCI’s truly taking shape is in the consumer format.  There is a ton of potential with the technology that is currently out there and being used to better understand how our bodies are working.  Much like a heart rate tracker or other wearable devices (Apple Watch, or Garmin), BCI’s have the potential to help individuals lead better lives through better understanding themselves. 

This doesn’t mean that Neuralink doesn’t serve a purpose, Dr. Ramses Alcaide sees the future of Neuralink as being one that is essential towards creating a structure and forecast of what’s to come in the neurotechnology industry. 

“As for Neuralink it is clear that their initial goal is to consolidate the work of many research institutions and create plausible functional systems that demonstrate how far we can currently go,” said Dr. Ramses Alcaide, “Elon’s team provides high hopes that they will be working and translating their technology to humans.”

Alcaide also alludes to the fact that there’s a lot of work to still be done. The technology that Neuralink debuted hasn’t hit human trials yet, and we’re still figuring out where we should draw lines for the future of what we’re building. 

We don't expect brain surgery to be the go to for the next 20-50 years. In the next 10 years we can expect to see continuous progress in material biocompatibility, increased electrode density, and optimistically lab use of prosthetic devices and human trials,” Dr. Alcaide said, “Theses are all necessary steps toward creating the incredible future invasive BCI companies have to offer.”

What this means for the neurotech industry overall

Neuralink is shining a spotlight on the neuroscience and BCI community, which allows for everyone to gain better understanding In the meantime, it is important to have larger efforts made by the neuroscience community to educate the public about the benefits such technology can bring. In order for BCI and neuroscience to be vastly utilized, the public needs to understand and trust the research, technology, and work that is being developed. 

Reactions to Neuralink are actively helping map out new pathways for areas of research that need to be done. Neuralink is showing what improvements can be made for the general public to find benefit in the advancing technology that can be created. Currently, companies and scientists are able to see hesitation with invasive BCI along with resistance to getting it implemented by a robot rather than a surgeon. 

Overall, introducing Neuralink to the world brings a new curiosity of what can be done using BCIs and neuroscience. This is only the beginning: further research and study will allow advanced implementations that could not only save lives, but improve lifestyles as a whole. 

Our takeaways

Invasive BCIs might be helpful for people with neurologic diseases, injury, or limb loss. However, objectives like boosting human intelligence or enhancing interaction bandwidth first need a deeper understanding of the brain and cognition, making invasive BCIs merely a tiny piece of a larger puzzle.

“Of course, there are many ways a technology might evolve and be combined with others, and so Neuralink might play one role in a larger set of tools,” Dr. Yousefi said, “I often comment that you wouldn’t use a Tesla to move large amounts of goods cross-country, but it is a reasonable solution to moving people around cities. One doesn't need to solve the whole problem space to be useful.” 

There is a larger need for understanding a problem before we ask technology to bring solutions. Therefore at Neurable we are working on demonstrating ways for people to understand their levels of fatigue and focus. This will shed more light on individuals about themselves and help them understand the problem they didn’t fully acknowledge as well as helping them find solutions through our technology and product. 

Neurable is targeting everyday consumers. Initially we want to give individuals insight and agency on their focus/fatigue and when you focus best and when to make the best decisions. At first it will be for a general consumer audience but overtime especially as the world becomes more remote this agency will be brought to schools and the workplace. Wearable everyday technology such as headphones, earbuds and glasses is where you will first find innovations for everyday BCI use. Overtime we will start to see the technology integrated into virtual reality systems and helmets (to increase safety at high risk work environments due to fatigue). 

As for Neuralink it is clear that their initial goal is to consolidate the work of many research institutions and create plausible functional systems  that demonstrate how far we can currently go. While Elon’s team does provide high hopes that they will be working and translating their technology to humans. There is still an incredible amount of work to be done. We don't expect brain surgery to be the go to for the next 20-50 years. In the next 10 years we can expect to see continuous progress in material biocompatibility, increased electrode density, and optimistically lab use of prosthetic devices and human trials. Theses are all necessary steps toward creating the incredible future invasive BCI companies have to offer. And we are excited for it!

Neuralink accomplish in 3-5 years

“Doctors often first start with a remedy that starts with prevention or preventative measures,” Dr. Ali Yousefie, lead scientist at Neurable said, “and much like these preventative measures like exercise and medication, we’

“When you go to a doctor and complain about a chronic back pain, the first step towards a remedy typically is exercise and medication,” Dr Ali, Yousefi, lead scientist at Neurable said, “The remedy of 

“The other remedy might be therapies as well. If the pain limits your movement, they might choose surgery at the end- this is the general practice in treating a disease (except life threatening conditions like accident or stroke where the surgery comes first). This might be the story of invasive and non-invasive BCIs as well; if the BCI is becoming helpful in daily life or disease treatment, the non-invasive one is more desired than invasive.”

What Neuralink means for the neuroscience community 

Neuralink is shining a spotlight on the neuroscience and BCI community. The BCI community is actively developing its technology with the advancements that can bring advancements to society in the future. In the meantime, it is important to have larger efforts made by the neuroscience community to educate the public about the benefits such technology can bring. In order for BCI and neuroscience to be vastly utilized, the public needs to understand and trust the research, technology, and work that is being developed. 

Reactions to Neuralink are actively helping map out new pathways for areas of research that need to be done. Neuralink is showing what improvements can be made for the general public to find benefit in the advancing technology that can be created. Currently, companies and scientists are able to see hesitation with invasive BCI along with resistance to getting it implemented by a robot rather than a surgeon. 

Overall, introducing Neuralink to the world brings a new curiosity of what can be done using BCIs and neuroscience. This is only the beginning: further research and study will allow advanced implementations that could not only save lives, but improve lifestyles as a whole. 

Our takeaways

Invasive BCIs might be helpful for people with neurologic diseases, injury, or limb loss. However, objectives like boosting human intelligence or enhancing interaction bandwidth first need a deeper understanding of the brain and cognition, making invasive BCIs merely a tiny piece of a larger puzzle.

Of course, there are many ways a technology might evolve and be combined with others, and so Link might play one role in a larger set of tools. I often comment that you wouldn’t use a Tesla to move large amounts of goods cross-country, but it is a reasonable solution to moving people around cities. One doesn't need to solve the whole problem space to be useful.” - PLACEHOLDER NAME, POSITION

  1. Who are we - Ramses (we can also consider skipping this)

  1. What are the innovations - Ali

Elon Musk ability to draw a vision that attracts top talent and amounts of capital is idiosyncratic. Elon is quite likely one of world's best applied engineers. It is not hard to see his mastery in Tesla and SpaceX. He is not afraid on betting big, and this has allowed him to push the envelope to the maximum and succeed.

What do you think about Tesla; is it an innovation or technological advancement? I hope you agree that it is a technological advance, and it is Elon’s willingness to go all-in, who has no gene for risk-aversion. Link is another Tesla; subpar engineering and clearly a technological advance. Link sets new standards for the real-time neural recording and analysis. Link is a Tesla version of UTAH Array and Neuropixels, and Neuralink is becoming another Tesla this time for the Invasive Neural Interface and BMI industry. 

We, at Neurable, believe Link will push the science and technology, and set new standard for BMI. The race has officially started!

  1. Invasive vs. Non-invasive - Ali and Ramses

When you go to a doctor and complain about a chronic back pain, the first remedy is exercise and medication. The other remedy might be therapies as well. If the pain limits your movement, they might choose surgery at the end- this is the general practice in treating a disease (except life threatening conditions like accident or stroke where the surgery comes first). This might be the story of invasive and non-invasive BCIs as well; if the BCI is becoming helpful in daily life or disease treatment, the non-invasive one is more desired than invasive. 

The non-invasive BCI might not be as impactful as the invasive one; however, concerns like surgery, side-effects, maintenance, and FDA approval are not involved here. 

The invasive BCI might be helpful in people with neurologic disease, injury, or limb loss. However, objectives like boosting human intelligence or enhancing interaction bandwidth first need a deeper understanding of the brain and  cognition, and Link and invasive BCI can be a tiny piece of a larger puzzle.

Ethical issues are another concern with invasive BCIs; while, applications of BCIs for disease treatment is well justified, invasive BCI applications for consumer applications have a long road map ahead. This might not be an issue for non-invasive BCI, and in particular those focusing on consumer market with a less medical concern.   

One of the questions I get each time Neuralink speaks is whether Neuralink is competing against Neurable. What I like to share is that neurotech is a broad field and most companies are not direct competitors. I like to think of buying footwear. You have consumers wear shoes like Tom’s or Nike (Neurable), sport specific shoes like cleats (Muse) and then you have prosthetic feet (Neuralink). Chances are that when you go to the store to buy shoes you aren’t comparing options from all these categories. Furthermore, at least for the foreseeable future most people looking to buy shoes are not keen to getting surgery for prosthetic feet, even if there were performance gains.

  1. What we loved and what we didn’t love - Ali

Link is cool, but it is only a platform! What we lack in Neuroscience is not solely neural recording technology, it is the theory of brain! It is the answer to questions like how the neurons communicate and how they form our conscious and thought. Though we are excited about Link, it would be exciting to see how NeuraLink advances understanding of the brain.

If you are excited about the brain research, check annual SFN meetings. More than thirty thousand researchers gather and discuss their findings off the brain; the most intriguing thing you will see is the debates on reproducibility of researchers’ results! On chip spike sorting that Link does probably based on a solid approach; the reproducibility and reliability of the sort might be a subject of the debate. Neuralink is over emphasizing the on-chip spike sorting, which might not be the sole legit modalities of neural data. It is well established that there is a significant information in the local potential field (LFP) data as well; we are sure Neuralink are working on analyzing those data.

BrainGate research has been initiated a decade ago to develop BCI to restore the communication, mobility, and independence of people with neurologic disease, injury, or limb loss. Link might be a reliable cortical interfacing for those project, but this domain science is solid and not new. Link is not looking like a very useful technology for treating psychiatric disorders, because it is not clear if the same approach can be used to go after the deep brain. Deep, sub-surface structures are critical to emotion, cognition, and the impairments of mental illness. 

 

  1. What does this mean for the Neurotech field (Consumer and Science) Ramses covers consumer and Ali covers science

Link is important giving it sets new standards for neurotech. A reliable, portable cortical interfacing which can be used in clinical settings for motor decoding and sensory prosthetics. Link might evolve and be combined with other technologies, and it might play one role in larger set of tools.

Dr. Alik Widge’s comment:

boy goodness, that is a lot of complex topics that will not fit well into an email.

I think in brief, what I can say is that the Link as proposed looks like an interesting technology for reliable cortical interfacing. It might provide a new platform that will advance motor decoding and sensory prosthetics. It is not looking like a very useful technology for treating psychiatric disorders, because it is not clear if the same approach can be used to go after the deep brain. Deep, sub-surface structures are critical to emotion, cognition, and the impairments of mental illness. 

Of course, there are many ways a technology might evolve and be combined with others, and so Link might play one role in a larger set of tools. I often comment that you wouldnt use a Tesla to move large amounts of goods cross-country, but it is a reasonable solution to moving people around cities. One doesn't need to solve the whole problem space to be useful.

We would like to thank you Dr. Alik S. Widge, UNM, for his insightful comments.


Author(s)
Sheeta Verma
In: FuturismNovember 3, 2020

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