Emerging Technologies SIG series – What is neural linking?

To provide additional information related to the Emerging Technologies SIG of the FINOS/Linux Foundation, I start a miniseries of posts going deeper into some of the technologies mentioned there. If you are interested in participating, please add your remarks at the Special Interest Group – Emerging Technologies item on the FINOS project board.

Neural links, also known as brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), are emerging technologies that enable communication between the human brain and an external device or system. These technologies have the potential to revolutionize fields such as healthcare, entertainment, education, and communication. In this article, we will explore the current state of neural links and examine some examples and case studies that demonstrate their potential.

They work by detecting and interpreting the electrical signals that are generated by the brain. These signals can be used to control external devices, such as computers or prosthetic limbs, or to receive sensory input, such as visual or auditory information. The most advanced neural links currently available are invasive, meaning that they require surgery to implant electrodes directly into the brain. However, there is ongoing research into non-invasive methods, such as using scalp electrodes or magnetic stimulation.

One of the most promising applications of neural links is in the field of healthcare. For example, neural links can be used to help patients with spinal cord injuries regain movement and control of their limbs. A study published in Nature in 2016 demonstrated that a patient with quadriplegia was able to control a robotic arm using a neural link, allowing him to perform tasks such as pouring water into a cup and stirring it with a spoon.

Another example of the potential of neural links in healthcare is their use in treating neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease. A study published in The Lancet in 2018 showed that patients with Parkinson’s who received deep brain stimulation via a neural link experienced significant improvements in their symptoms compared to those who received standard treatment.

Neural links also have the potential to transform entertainment and communication. For example, imagine being able to experience a movie or video game directly in your brain, without the need for a screen or speakers. This could be achieved through a neural link that delivers sensory input, such as visual and auditory information, directly to the brain. In 2018, a company called Neurable demonstrated a prototype of a virtual reality game that could be controlled using a neural link, allowing players to use their thoughts to interact with the virtual environment. Or imagine being able to log into an application, create and approve a financial transaction, etc. using just a neural link. Together with technologies like ChatGPT/GPT, this could open a new way of work, communication, life.

In the field of education, neural links could be used to enhance learning by providing students with personalized feedback and assistance. For example, a neural link could detect when a student is struggling with a particular concept and provide them with additional resources or support. In addition, neural links could be used to create more immersive and engaging educational experiences, such as virtual field trips or interactive simulations.

However, there are also concerns about the ethical and societal implications of neural links. One concern is the potential for neural links to be used for surveillance or mind control. Another concern is the potential for neural links to widen the gap between those who can afford the technology and those who cannot.

A company we cannot miss from any kind of compare on the topic in Neuralink – it is a company founded by Elon Musk in 2016 with the goal of developing neural links that are safe, affordable, and easy to use. Unlike most other neural link technologies, Neuralink aims to create a minimally invasive system that can be implanted in the brain without requiring major surgery. The system consists of tiny threads, thinner than a human hair, that are implanted using a custom robot. The threads are connected to a small device called the “Link” that is implanted behind the ear and can communicate wirelessly with external devices.

Neuralink’s ultimate goal is to enable humans to merge with artificial intelligence, creating a symbiotic relationship that enhances our cognitive abilities and enables us to keep up with the rapid pace of technological progress. While this vision is still a long way off, Neuralink has made significant progress in developing its technology. In 2020, the company demonstrated a prototype of its neural link system in pigs, showing that the technology is capable of transmitting signals from the brain to a computer. While there is still much work to be done, Neuralink has the potential to revolutionize the field of neural links and transform the way we interact with technology.

Despite the promise of neural links, and even beside the ones mentioned above, there are still several limitations and shortcomings that need to be addressed before they can become widely used. Some of these limitations and plans to remediate them are as follows:

  • Invasiveness: Most current neural links require invasive surgery to implant electrodes directly into the brain, which carries significant risks and limitations. Non-invasive methods, such as using scalp electrodes or magnetic stimulation, are being researched to overcome this limitation.
  • Scalability: Current neural links are limited in terms of the number of neurons they can record or stimulate at once. This limits their ability to provide precise and detailed control over external devices. Research is being conducted to develop more scalable systems that can record or stimulate a larger number of neurons.
  • Longevity: Neural links are currently limited in terms of their lifespan, as the electrodes can degrade over time or become displaced. Research is being conducted to develop more durable and longer-lasting materials for neural links.
  • Cost: Current neural links are expensive and not affordable for most people. Research is being conducted to develop more affordable and accessible neural link technologies.
  • Ethics: There are ethical concerns regarding the use of neural links, particularly regarding issues such as privacy, autonomy, and consent. These concerns need to be addressed to ensure that the use of neural links is ethical and does not violate individuals’ rights.

To address these limitations and shortcomings, ongoing research and development are being conducted in the field of neural links. Researchers are exploring new materials and technologies to make neural links more durable, scalable, and affordable. They are also working on developing non-invasive methods for implanting neural links and addressing ethical concerns related to their use. With continued research and development, it is expected that neural links will become more accessible, affordable, and practical for widespread use in the future. One way to make these limitations remediated faster is having open standards for neural links – at present, there are no widely accepted open standards for neural link technologies. Most companies and researchers in the field are working on proprietary systems that are not interoperable with one another. This lack of standardization can create issues such as limited compatibility between different systems and limited access to data.

However, there are efforts underway to establish open standards for neural link technologies. The IEEE Standards Association, for example, has launched a working group to develop a standard for brain-machine interface devices. The aim of this standard is to provide guidelines for designing, testing, and evaluating these devices to ensure that they are safe, effective, and reliable. The standard is being developed with input from experts in academia, industry, and regulatory agencies.

The creation of open standards for neural link technologies could have significant benefits for the field. It could increase interoperability between different systems, making it easier for researchers to collaborate and share data. It could also lead to more rapid innovation and development of new neural link technologies, as companies and researchers could build on existing standards rather than starting from scratch. However, the development of open standards will require collaboration and agreement among a wide range of stakeholders, including researchers, companies, and regulatory agencies.