Visionary and sometimes controversial entrepreneur Elon Musk hinted at advances in next-generation brain hacking. Recent research results promise future “neural lace” technology that could enhance our brains and connect them to the cloud.
“Making progress,” said Musk in a tweet, in reply to a query about “neural lace” technologies for augmenting human intelligence.
“Maybe something to announce in a few months.”
“Something I think is going to be quite important – I don’t know of a company that’s working on it seriously – is a neural lace,” said Musk. “Somebody’s got to do it. If somebody doesn’t do it, then I think I should do it.”
As it often happens, the term “neural lace” was first used in a science fiction masterpiece: “The Culture” space operas, by the late lamented Iain M. Banks. Science writer Annalee Newitz described Banks’ concept in a June 2015 Gizmodo story. “A mesh that grows with your brain, it’s essentially a wireless brain-computer interface,” said Newitz. “But it’s also a way to program your neurons to release certain chemicals with a thought.”
“And now, there’s a neural lace prototype in real life,” noted Newitz.
In fact, in June 2015 a team of researchers at Harvard University and the National Center for Nanoscience and Technology in Beijing, led by Harvard chemistry professor Charles Lieber, announced promising preliminary advances toward neural lace tech. In an article titled “Syringe-injectable electronics,” published in Nature Nanotechnology, the researchers described mesh electronics that can be injected in the brain to interface electronic and biological circuitry, with first promising results on laboratory mice.
The researchers demonstrated the possibility to deliver electronics to the internal regions of the brain by means of syringe injection – and subsequent unfolding – of submicrometer-thick, centimeter-scale macroporous mesh electronics through needles with a diameter as small as 100 micrometers (one-tenth of a millimeter).
Imagine thin and flexible tissue-like electronic chips rolled up in a needle, injected in the brain, and then unrolling and blending with the brain’s neural circuitry. The results show that mesh electronics injected into the brains of mice are safe, interact with the neurons in the brain, and can reliably monitor brain activity. The researchers conclude that:
“Syringe-injectable electronics could serve as a unique yet general platform for building direct neuron–nanoelectronics interfaces for in vivo studies.”
“I do feel that this has the potential to be revolutionary,” said Lieber in a Harvard press release. “This opens up a completely new frontier where we can explore the interface between electronic structures and biology.”
[Our injectable electronics] are one million times more flexible than any state-of-the-art flexible electronics and have subcellular feature sizes… they actually like to interact with neurons.”
Seamless Integration of Electronics and Biology
A new paper by Lieber’s research team, titled “Stable long-term chronic brain mapping at the single-neuron level,” published in Nature Methods a few days ago, shows that that syringe-injectable mesh electronics can stably and safely record neural activity in mice for eight months or more, and deliver electrical stimulation to the brain over three months or more.
The researchers conclude that recording and stimulating the same neurons and neural circuits over long times opens up important neurobiology opportunities, “including understanding fundamental neural circuit plasticity, reorganization and development during learning, memory formation and aging-associated cognitive decline,” and enables closed-loop Brain-Machine Interfaces (BMI) in live animals.
In the future, syringe-injectable mesh electronics could be deployed in humans for clinical applications. “I don’t think that’s science-fiction,” said Lieber in a Harvard press release, adding that seamless integration of the electronics and biology could open the door to an entirely new class of BMI and prosthetics.
Neural Lace From Science Fiction to Science Fact: Musk’s Bold Vision
Of course, Banks’ science fiction runs much ahead of Lieber’s science. For example, in “Surface Detail,” one of The Culture novels, Banks imagines that “a full back-up-capable neural lace grows with the brain it’s part of, it beds in over the years, gets very adept at mirroring every detail of the mind it interpenetrates and co-exists with.”
But Elon Musk has the brains, the vision, and the money to turn science fiction into science fact. After creating the successful luxury electric car company Tesla Motors and the commercial space transportation company SpaceX, Musk wants to colonize Mars. At the forthcoming International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, on September 26-30, Musk will give a special keynote entitled “Making Humans a Multiplanetary Species.”
Musk is known to be deeply concerned about the threat that Artificial Intelligence (AI) could pose to humanity, and it seems plausible that he considers neural lace technology as a means for future humans to compete with AIs. Musk’s short tweet could indicate that he is working with neuroscientists to make science fiction happen.
In fact, though Lieber’s sober scientific statements only mention therapeutic prosthetics, neural lace technology could be used for enhancement: future applications would permit increasing memory and intelligence with neural co-processors, achieving brain-to-brain interfaces (aka telepathy) with brain implants wirelessly connected to the cloud, and even – as in Banks novels – backing up the brain for mind uploading.
Images from Harvard University, Wikimedia Commons, and Shutterstock.