Elon Musk’s new startup — your brain

Not quite content with infiltrating garages, roofs and lunar orbit, Elon Musk has set his sights on another target — the brain.

The visionary billionaire will play a lead role in an artificial-intelligence startup called Neuralink, focusing on integrating the human brain with computers, according to reports.

Musk expects to reveal more plans for Neuralink next week. The company will design networks to link human brains with embedded electrodes capable of transferring thoughts to a computer, according to the Wall Street Journal.

An executive involved in the venture described the company to the journal as “embryonic.” Neuralink was incorporated last year, and has hired several academics from medical research fields.

Musk acknowledged Tuesday on Twitter that it was “difficult to dedicate the time,” but he feels the risk is “existential.” The venture could give humans an advantage when living with new generations of super-intelligent machines.

Musk often warns of the dangers of artificial intelligence threatening human existence. He’s even suggested one reason to colonize Mars is to have an escape hatch if rogue AI brings havoc to earth.

“I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence,” Musk told an audience at MIT in 2014. “With artificial intelligence, we’re summoning the demon.”

He called for international regulatory oversight, he said, “just to make sure we don’t do something very foolish.”

Neuralink enters a fast-growing field that could lead to advances in brain function and medicine.

Joshua Conner, an adjunct professor of computer engineering at Santa Clara University, said the artificial intelligence field has grown rapidly in the last 10 years. Tech companies continue to develop new AI capabilities and bring them to market.

Conner said research is pushing into fields to add capacity to the human brain — either to supplement human memory, add intelligence or computing power, or interfacing with tissues to treat neurological disorders.

“It’s very much cutting edge,” Conner said.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, is studying the potential medical benefits of electronic implants and the nervous system. Researchers at the agency believe technology could allow the body to better heal itself, and create a bridge between the digital and neural worlds.

Musk will have to find the bandwidth to lead another venture. He already leads Tesla and SpaceX, two companies facing major growth and challenges. He’s also spun off an idea to create a tunnel boring company to drill under highways to create new routes to avoid traffic.

Critics point to the troubles managing the aggressive expansions at Tesla, where Musk promises production will jump from 84,000 vehicles in 2016 to what would be a record-setting half-million vehicles in 2018.

And he’d like to send two private citizens around the moon next year on a SpaceX rocket.

CFRA Research analyst Efraim Levy raised his target for Tesla stock on news it received a vote of confidence from a major Chinese investor, Tencent, which has bought a 5 percent stake in the electric-vehicle company. The new startup, however, could blur Musk’s focus on his core companies.

“We think some who like Elon Musk view news of his latest venture, Neuralink, as a reason to buy TSLA,” Levy wrote, “but we note added risk of distraction for Musk.”

AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File FILE – In this Dec. 14, 2016, file photo, Tesla CEO Elon Musk listens as President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with technology industry leaders at Trump Tower in New York., Musk promised on Twitter March 9, 2017, to solve an energy crisis in Australia or his company’s services are free. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

Elon Musk launches Neuralink, a venture to merge the human brain with AI

SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk is backing a brain-computer interface venture called Neuralink, according to The Wall Street Journal. The company, which is still in the earliest stages of existence and has no public presence whatsoever, is centered on creating devices that can be implanted in the human brain, with the eventual purpose of helping human beings merge with software and keep pace with advancements in artificial intelligence. These enhancements could improve memory or allow for more direct interfacing with computing devices.

Musk has hinted at the existence of Neuralink a few times over the last six months or so. More recently, Musk told a crowd in Dubai, “Over time I think we will probably see a closer merger of biological intelligence and digital intelligence.” He added that “it's mostly about the bandwidth, the speed of the connection between your brain and the digital version of yourself, particularly output." On Twitter, Musk has responded to inquiring fans about his progress on a so-called “neural lace,” which is sci-fi shorthand for a brain-computer interface humans could use to improve themselves.

These types of brain-computer interfaces exist today only in science fiction. In the medical realm, electrode arrays and other implants have been used to help ameliorate the effects of Parkinson’s, epilepsy, and other neurodegenerative diseases. However, very few people on the planet have complex implants placed inside their skulls, while the number of patients with very basic stimulating devices number only in the tens of thousands. This is partly because it is incredibly dangerous and invasive to operate on the human brain, and only those who have exhausted every other medical option choose to undergo such surgery as a last resort.

This has not stopped a surge in Silicon Valley interest from tech industry futurists who are interested in accelerating the advancement of these types of far-off ideas. Kernel, a startup created by Braintree co-founder Bryan Johnson, is also trying to enhance human cognition. With more than $100 million of Johnson’s own money — the entrepreneur sold Braintree to PayPal for around $800 million in 2013 — Kernel and its growing team of neuroscientists and software engineers are working toward reversing the effects of neurodegenerative diseases and, eventually, making our brains faster and smarter and more wired.

“We know if we put a chip in the brain and release electrical signals, that we can ameliorate symptoms of Parkinson's,” Johnson told The Verge in an interview late last year. (Johnson also confirmed Musk’s involvement with Neuralink.) “This has been done for spinal cord pain, obesity, anorexia… what hasn’t been done is the reading and writing of neural code.” Johnson says Kernel’s goal is to “work with the brain the same way we work with other complex biological systems like biology and genetics.”

Kernel, to its credit, is quite upfront about the years of medical research necessary to better understand the human brain and pioneer new surgery techniques, software methods, and implant devices that could make a consumer brain-computer interface a reality. The Wall Street Journal says Neuralink was founded as a medical research company in California last July, which bolsters the idea that Musk will follow a similar route as Johnson and Kernel.

To be fair, the hurdles involved in developing these devices are immense. Neuroscience researchers say we have very limited understanding about how the neurons in the human brain communicate, and our methods for collecting data on those neurons is rudimentary. Then there’s the idea of people volunteering to have electronics placed inside their heads.

“People are only going to be amenable to the idea [of an implant] if they have a very serious medical condition they might get help with,” Blake Richards, a neuroscientist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto, told The Verge in an interview earlier this year. “Most healthy individuals are uncomfortable with the idea of having a doctor crack open their skull.”

Elon Musk creates Neuralink brain electrode firm

Tesla chief executive Elon Musk has launched Neuralink, a start-up which aims to develop technology that connects our brains to computers.

A report from the Wall Street Journal, later confirmed in a tweet by Mr Musk, said the company was in its very early stages and registered as a “medical research” firm.

The company will develop so-called “neural lace” technology which would implant tiny electrodes into the brain.
The technique could be used to improve memory or give humans added artificial intelligence.

According to the Journal, leading academics in the field have been signed up to work at the company which is being funded privately by Mr Musk.

Specialists in the field envision a time when humans may be able to upload and download thoughts.

In a tweet on Tuesday evening, Mr Musk confirmed the existence of the company and said more details about the firm would be made public next week via WaitButWhy - a site known for illustrating its lengthy post with often crude but charming stick figure drawings.

Mr Musk is considered one of Silicon Valley’s most visionary figures - and surely now its busiest.

As well as heading electric carmaker Tesla, Mr Musk is involved with running space exploration company Space X, a project to reinvent transport called Hyperloop and, most recently, a firm investigating the feasibility of boring tunnels underneath Los Angeles - and a new project to power Australia.

Tweeting about Neuralink, Mr Musk conceded it would be “difficult to dedicate the time, but existential risk is too high not to”.

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