Neuralink: Medical Advancement or Brain Hacking Nightmare?
Written by Aden Hizkias
Neuralink, Elon Musk’s newest startup, is a neural implant device that is said to allow humans to control computer or mobile phones. On August 28, 2020, Musk provided a live demonstration of the device on pigs and hopes to advance to human trials by Summer 2021. The scope of the use of this device is currently strictly for the medical field although the goal is to broaden that, which begs the question: what are the potential issues and the implications of widening the scope of the Neuralink implant?
Neuralink was founded by Elon Musk and first introduced in 2016 with the goal of developing implantable brain computer interfaces or BCIs. A brain computer interface is a computer-based communication system that acquires brain signals and messages, analyzes them, and translates them into commands to an output device (such as a smartphone) to carry out that action. Since its inception, Musk has been on the forefront in advertising the Neuralink device and on August 28, 2020 presented a live demonstration.1Watch Elon Musk’s ENTIRE live Neuralink demonstration, YouTube (Aug. 28, 2020), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iOWFXqT5MZ4&t=1463s. Neuralink is not the first company to try its hand in the BCI field with competitors such as NeuroSky, MindMaze, and Emotiv. However, Neuralink has been approved by the FDA and in July 2020 was granted a breakthrough device designation.2Scott Jung, Elon Musk’s Neuralink Shares More About Its Implantable Brain Stimulator, Aug. 31, 2020 https://www.medgadget.com/2020/08/elon-musks-neuralink-shares-more-about-its-implantable-brain-device.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+Medgadget+%28Medgadget%29.
As this company progresses, there are three potential issues that may have legal implications to consider, including scope, affordability, and privacy through hacking. First, Neuralink has stated that the first applications will be focused on certain types of brain injuries such as stroke, cancer, congenital problems, and spinal cord injuries.3Jo Best, Elon Musk’s Neuralink explained: Get ready to merge your mind with a computer, ZDNet (Oct. 27, 2020, 6:12PM), https://www.zdnet.com/article/elon-musks-neuralink-explained-get-ready-to-merge-your-mind-with-a-computer/. For instance, with the use of this device, a stroke victim who is unable to speak in a coherent pattern could be able to speak again via thoughts that are transmitted over a wireless connection to a computer or mobile device.4Neuralink, https://neuralink.com/approach/ (2020).
Additionally, Neuralink hopes that its device will transform certain aspects of the medical surgical field, including general anesthesia and bleeding risk during operations. With general anesthesia, Neuralink hopes that the risks associated with anesthesia will be reduced by shortening the time of procedures. Musk has gone so far as to say that, combined with other advancements in robotic surgical tooling, Neuralink may allow the medical field to eliminate general anesthesia by implanting the device and allowing for conscious sedation. As for reducing the risk of bleeding, Neuralink hopes to reduce bleeding risks by using micron-scale threads inserted with a needle that has a diameter about the size of many neurons in the brain. If this can be done, the neurosurgical robot will avoid damaging blood vessels at or near the surface of the brain.
The second issue is that this device is priced for its current consumer (hospitals and doctors), and not for future markets. Current target audiences are hospitals where doctors and specialists will have the robotic surgical tool to implant the devices. This suggests that the nature of the device is for medical purposes and to enhance medical technology. However, the definition of the scope is slightly different according to the official Neuralink goal, which is that “the initial goal of our technology is to help people with paralysis to regain independence through the control of computers and mobile devices.”5Neuralink, https://neuralink.com/approach/ (2020). This misses a future secondary hidden consumer. If this device transforms from simply a medical tool to a commercially used enhancement, affordability will change drastically. With this in mind, considerations include what a human enhancement can look like, what it could be used for, and how it can change social activities and their implications. Examples include who will have this access, the classist implications of this device, and how it will change guidelines in activities such as sports, academia, and politics.
Third, hacking and privacy will be major issues especially with the expansion of the digital age. Neuralink is designed to translate from the brain to a computer through the use of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. With the emergence of neuro-technology and the increase of hackers, Musk and all others who hope to widen this field must first assess and answer what that means in terms of the risks, how privacy will be maintained, and the liability if thoughts are accessed.
Neuralink is an ambitious device that can open up a new world of what the brain and technology can accomplish when working together. But before human trials begin, the legislation and legal elements must be examined including how restrictive the FDA may be now that it has approved the technology, and potential cyber rights, as well as liability.