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Cambridge University Science Magazine
THE IMAGE OF A human jacking their consciousness directly into some kind of software or virtual space is a classic cyberpunk trope. From Philip K. Dick’s ‘replicants’ to David Cronenberg’s ‘UmbyCords’ and ‘bio-ports’ (‘Long live the new flesh!’) and even The Matrix’s horrifying human battery cells, bioengineered humanoids have moved among us for some time now… at least in the imagination. The idea has even spawned a once niche movement of ‘transhumanists’ advocating for biohacking and body modification to augment human capabilities via the use of emerging technology. But how close are we to truly merging mind with machine? Are its loudest proponents just shilling rusty ideas riddled with contagious malware?

The brain-machine interface (BMI) is an experimental biomedical technology characterized by the establishment of a direct communication pathway between the human brain and a computer. Such a tool, if safe and reliable, would revolutionize a plethora of medical fields, allowing paralyzed individuals to walk again and amputees to receive prosthetics functionally indistinguishable from their original limbs. The term ‘brain-machine interface’ first appeared in a 2001 review paper entitled Actions from Thoughts authored by the Brazilian neuroscientist Dr Miguel Nicolelis. Over the following two decades, the tireless work of the scientific community has allowed BMIs to reach impressive new heights.

However, progress is often vulnerable to exploitation, with many jumping at the opportunity to profit from the fascination associated with this emerging technology. One such individual is the world-famous industrialist and hype-lord, Elon Musk. With the founding of his company Neuralink in 2016, the tech billionaire has accomplished little beyond plagiarizing the work of multiple academics while making baseless claims of feats that his BMIs can supposedly perform. In doing so, Musk minimizes legitimate advancements in the field, robbing many true innovators of the recognition and praise they deserve.

In 2021 Neuralink announced it had successfully implanted one of its devices into the cranium of a macaque monkey, allowing the animal to play a game of pong with its mind. Having initially taught the monkey how to play the game with a joystick, Neuralink’s engineers measured the brain activity of the animal during play. In turn, this allowed them to remove the joystick and have the monkey move the virtual pieces with only its thoughts.

This demonstration could be considered impressive were it not a verbatim replication of a study conducted by Duke University researchers in 2003. A team led by the aforementioned Dr Miguel Nicolelis demonstrated how BMIs can be used to allow a mature macaque to play a similar video game by solely imagining the necessary movements. Since the study, many scientists have built on this finding and produced progressively more impressive results, rendering Neuralink’s 2021 demonstration even more trivial. At the time at which Neuralink would have been developing this ‘innovation’, the company’s acting President was Max Hodak, a biomedical engineer who formerly worked as a research assistant for Dr Nicolelis in his laboratory at Duke. This saddening fact demonstrates that Neuralink failed to take the time to properly credit the researchers whose work they replicated.

The use of BMI technologies in humans is incredibly complex and the scientific community is continuously faced with new challenges as development progresses. Medical applications are still decades of rigorous research away. All attempts at implanting current BMIs inside human patients are extremely experimental and present complicated issues that further stress the need for careful research before any moves to broader medical implementation. Despite this, Musk, who has identified as a science fiction fan in several interviews, envisions a world where his BMIs are not used solely for medical purposes but also by the general public for ‘enhancements’ of the human brain.

According to Musk's vision of the future, anyone will be able to install one of his BMIs at a Neuralink location, such as in a shopping centre. For anyone still on the fence about having open brain surgery in such a setting, he is quick to offer reassurance that the functionality of the device will make up for its gruesome installation process. Once implanted, the electrodes extending into the cerebral cortex will endow the user with a set of superpowers stripped directly from the pages of science fiction novels such as William Gibson's Neuromancer. According to multiple Silicon Valley Neuralink presentations and press interviews, the devices will allow for a direct download of any foreign language into the user's brain. Musk has gone on to state that his devices will also facilitate telepathic communication, rendering spoken language obsolete. If that were not enough, Neuralink customers will also be able to see all frequencies of light ranging from gamma rays to radio waves. Perhaps the most baffling of all is Musk’s promise that Neuralink devices will allow users to upload all of their memories and experiences onto an external hard drive, granting them digital immortality.

In a 2022 TED interview with the non-profit’s head, Chris Anderson, Musk stated he anticipates the company will begin implanting human patients with their BMI chips as soon as the following year. Given the continuing promises of superhuman abilities peddled in the media, most healthy skeptics are less than eager to sign up for trials. Considering the state of Neurolink’s abhorrent animal welfare violations, the idea should elicit feelings of terror in anyone. Court filings of evidence put forth by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine found that the monkeys at Musk's company have endured ‘extreme suffering’. According to multiple sources, one female macaque experienced a severe cerebral haemorrhage after an unsuccessful implantation of a Neuralink device. This led the animal to violently vomit until eventually dying from exhaustion.

The myth of Musk's genius is just that: a myth. His mystique does not magically make him a research scientist nor a medical professional. Entrusting him with designing the future of brain surgery and implants is reckless. He has no formal training or education in neuroscience or any related field, yet many blithely accept him as an innovator in the field. His company has plagiarized the work of academics, made numerous unscientific promises about their products' functionality, and subjected their research animals to what can only be described as torture, all in the name of Silicon Valley ‘progress’. Academic research in new biomedical technologies is slow and such restraint is vital to ensuring the methods employed for medical purposes are not only reliable and safe, but ethically tested and accountable. The disruptive ‘move fast and break things’ philosophy governing technological entrepreneurship is fundamentally incompatible with biomedical research, a field that concerns itself with our bodies at their most vulnerable, and its privatization has in the past and will in future result in nothing but suffering.

Article by Maciej Gabrysiak. Artwork by Sumit Sen.