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Elon Musk grabbed a lot of attention with his July 16 announcement that his company Neuralink plans to implant electrodes into the brains of people with paralysis by next year. Their first goal is to create assistive technology to help people who can’t move or are unable to communicate.
If you haven’t been paying attention, brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) that allow people to control robotic arms with their thoughts might sound like science fiction. But science and engineering efforts have already turned it into reality.
In a few research labs around the world, scientists and physicians have been implanting devices into the brains of people who have lost the ability to control their arms or hands for over a decade. In our own research group at the University of Pittsburgh, we’ve enabled people with paralyzed arms and hands to control robotic arms that allow them to grasp and move objects with relative ease. They can even experience touch-like sensations from their own hand when the robot grasps objects.
At its core, a BMI is pretty straightforward. In your brain, microscopic cells called neurons are sending signals back and forth to each other all the time. Everything you think, do and feel as you interact with the world around you is the result of the activity of these 80 billion or so neurons.
If you implant a tiny wire very close to one of these neurons, you can record the electrical activity it generates and send it to a computer. Record enough of these signals from the right area of the brain and it becomes possible to control computers, robots, or anything else you might want, simply by thinking about moving. But doing this comes with tremendous technical challenges, especially if you want to record from hundreds or thousands of neurons.
What Neuralink Is Bringing to the Table
Elon Musk founded Neuralink in 2017, aiming to address these challenges and raise the bar for implanted neural interfaces.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Neuralink’s system is the breadth and depth of their approach. Building a BMI is inherently interdisciplinary, requiring expertise in electrode design and microfabrication, implantable materials, surgical methods, electronics, packaging, neuroscience, algorithms, medicine, regulatory issues, and more. Neuralink has created a team that spans most, if not all, of these areas.
With all of this expertise, Neuralink is undoubtedly moving the field forward, and improving their technology rapidly. Individually, many of the components of their system represent significant progress along predictable paths. For example, their electrodes, that they call threads, are very small and flexible; many researchers have tried to harness those properties to minimize the chance the brain’s immune response would reject the electrodes after insertion. Neuralink has also developed high-performance miniature electronics, another focus area for labs working on BMIs.
Often overlooked in academic settings, however, is how an entire system would be efficiently implanted in a brain.
Neuralink’s BMI requires brain surgery. This is because implanted electrodes that are in intimate contact with neurons will always outperform non-invasive electrodes where neurons are far away from the electrodes sitting outside the skull. So, a critical question becomes how to minimize the surgical challenges around getting the device into a brain.
Maybe the most impressive aspect of Neuralink’s announcement was that they created a 3,000-electrode neural interface where electrodes could be implanted at a rate of between 30 and 200 per minute. Each thread of electrodes is implanted by a sophisticated surgical robot that essentially acts like a sewing machine. This all happens while specifically avoiding blood vessels that blanket the surface of the brain. The robotics and imaging that enable this feat, with tight integration to the entire device, is striking.
Neuralink has thought through the challenge of developing a clinically viable BMI from beginning to end in a way that few groups have done, though they acknowledge that many challenges remain as they work towards getting this technology into human patients in the clinic.
Figuring Out What More Electrodes Gets You
The quest for implantable devices with thousands of electrodes is not only the domain of private companies. DARPA, the NIH BRAIN Initiative, and international consortiums are working on neurotechnologies for recording and stimulating in the brain with goals of tens of thousands of electrodes. But what might scientists do with the information from 1,000, 3,000, or maybe even 100,000 neurons?
At some level, devices with more electrodes might not actually be necessary to have a meaningful impact in people’s lives. Effective control of computers for access and communication, of robotic limbs to grasp and move objects as well as of paralyzed muscles is already happening—in people. And it has been for a number of years.
Since the 1990s, the Utah Array, which has just 100 electrodes and is manufactured by Blackrock Microsystems, has been a critical device in neuroscience and clinical research. This electrode array is FDA-cleared for temporary neural recording. Several research groups, including our own, have implanted Utah Arrays in people that lasted multiple years.
Currently, the biggest constraints are related to connectors, electronics, and system-level engineering, not the implanted electrode itself—although increasing the electrodes’ lifespan to more than five years would represent a significant advance. As those technical capabilities improve, it might turn out that the ability to accurately control computers and robots is limited more by scientists’ understanding of what the neurons are saying—that is, the neural code—than by the number of electrodes on the device.
Even the most capable implanted system, and maybe the most capable devices researchers can reasonably imagine, might fall short of the goal of actually augmenting skilled human performance. Nevertheless, Neuralink’s goal of creating better BMIs has the potential to improve the lives of people who can’t move or are unable to communicate. Right now, Musk’s vision of using BMIs to meld physical brains and intelligence with artificial ones is no more than a dream.
So, what does the future look like for Neuralink and other groups creating implantable BMIs? Devices with more electrodes that last longer and are connected to smaller and more powerful wireless electronics are essential. Better devices themselves, however, are insufficient. Continued public and private investment in companies and academic research labs, as well as innovative ways for these groups to work together to share technologies and data, will be necessary to truly advance scientists’ understanding of the brain and deliver on the promise of BMIs to improve peoples’ lives.
While researchers need to keep the future societal implications of advanced neurotechnologies in mind—there’s an essential role for ethicists and regulation—BMIs could be truly transformative as they help more people overcome limitations caused by injury or disease in the brain and body.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
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The first generation to grow up entirely in the 21st century will never remember a time before smartphones or smart assistants. They will likely be the first children to ride in self-driving cars, as well as the first whose healthcare and education could be increasingly turned over to artificially intelligent machines.
Futurists, demographers, and marketers have yet to agree on the specifics of what defines the next wave of humanity to follow Generation Z. That hasn’t stopped some, like Australian futurist Mark McCrindle, from coining the term Generation Alpha, denoting a sort of reboot of society in a fully-realized digital age.
“In the past, the individual had no power, really,” McCrindle told Business Insider. “Now, the individual has great control of their lives through being able to leverage this world. Technology, in a sense, transformed the expectations of our interactions.”
No doubt technology may impart Marvel superhero-like powers to Generation Alpha that even tech-savvy Millennials never envisioned over cups of chai latte. But the powers of machine learning, computer vision, and other disciplines under the broad category of artificial intelligence will shape this yet unformed generation more definitively than any before it.
What will it be like to come of age in the Age of AI?
The AI Doctor Will See You Now
Perhaps no other industry is adopting and using AI as much as healthcare. The term “artificial intelligence” appears in nearly 90,000 publications from biomedical literature and research on the PubMed database.
AI is already transforming healthcare and longevity research. Machines are helping to design drugs faster and detect disease earlier. And AI may soon influence not only how we diagnose and treat illness in children, but perhaps how we choose which children will be born in the first place.
A study published earlier this month in NPJ Digital Medicine by scientists from Weill Cornell Medicine used 12,000 photos of human embryos taken five days after fertilization to train an AI algorithm on how to tell which in vitro fertilized embryo had the best chance of a successful pregnancy based on its quality.
Investigators assigned each embryo a grade based on various aspects of its appearance. A statistical analysis then correlated that grade with the probability of success. The algorithm, dubbed Stork, was able to classify the quality of a new set of images with 97 percent accuracy.
“Our algorithm will help embryologists maximize the chances that their patients will have a single healthy pregnancy,” said Dr. Olivier Elemento, director of the Caryl and Israel Englander Institute for Precision Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine, in a press release. “The IVF procedure will remain the same, but we’ll be able to improve outcomes by harnessing the power of artificial intelligence.”
Other medical researchers see potential in applying AI to detect possible developmental issues in newborns. Scientists in Europe, working with a Finnish AI startup that creates seizure monitoring technology, have developed a technique for detecting movement patterns that might indicate conditions like cerebral palsy.
Published last month in the journal Acta Pediatrica, the study relied on an algorithm to extract the movements from a newborn, turning it into a simplified “stick figure” that medical experts could use to more easily detect clinically relevant data.
The researchers are continuing to improve the datasets, including using 3D video recordings, and are now developing an AI-based method for determining if a child’s motor maturity aligns with its true age. Meanwhile, a study published in February in Nature Medicine discussed the potential of using AI to diagnose pediatric disease.
AI Gets Classy
After being weaned on algorithms, Generation Alpha will hit the books—about machine learning.
China is famously trying to win the proverbial AI arms race by spending billions on new technologies, with one Chinese city alone pledging nearly $16 billion to build a smart economy based on artificial intelligence.
To reach dominance by its stated goal of 2030, Chinese cities are also incorporating AI education into their school curriculum. Last year, China published its first high school textbook on AI, according to the South China Morning Post. More than 40 schools are participating in a pilot program that involves SenseTime, one of the country’s biggest AI companies.
In the US, where it seems every child has access to their own AI assistant, researchers are just beginning to understand how the ubiquity of intelligent machines will influence the ways children learn and interact with their highly digitized environments.
Sandra Chang-Kredl, associate professor of the department of education at Concordia University, told The Globe and Mail that AI could have detrimental effects on learning creativity or emotional connectedness.
Similar concerns inspired Stefania Druga, a member of the Personal Robots group at the MIT Media Lab (and former Education Teaching Fellow at SU), to study interactions between children and artificial intelligence devices in order to encourage positive interactions.
Toward that goal, Druga created Cognimates, a platform that enables children to program and customize their own smart devices such as Alexa or even a smart, functional robot. The kids can also use Cognimates to train their own AI models or even build a machine learning version of Rock Paper Scissors that gets better over time.
“I believe it’s important to also introduce young people to the concepts of AI and machine learning through hands-on projects so they can make more informed and critical use of these technologies,” Druga wrote in a Medium blog post.
Druga is also the founder of Hackidemia, an international organization that sponsors workshops and labs around the world to introduce kids to emerging technologies at an early age.
“I think we are in an arms race in education with the advancement of technology, and we need to start thinking about AI literacy before patterns of behaviors for children and their families settle in place,” she wrote.
AI Goes Back to School
It also turns out that AI has as much to learn from kids. More and more researchers are interested in understanding how children grasp basic concepts that still elude the most advanced machine minds.
For example, developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik has written and lectured extensively about how studying the minds of children can provide computer scientists clues on how to improve machine learning techniques.
In an interview on Vox, she described that while DeepMind’s AlpahZero was trained to be a chessmaster, it struggles with even the simplest changes in the rules, such as allowing the bishop to move horizontally instead of vertically.
“A human chess player, even a kid, will immediately understand how to transfer that new rule to their playing of the game,” she noted. “Flexibility and generalization are something that even human one-year-olds can do but that the best machine learning systems have a much harder time with.”
Last year, the federal defense agency DARPA announced a new program aimed at improving AI by teaching it “common sense.” One of the chief strategies is to develop systems for “teaching machines through experience, mimicking the way babies grow to understand the world.”
Such an approach is also the basis of a new AI program at MIT called the MIT Quest for Intelligence.
The research leverages cognitive science to understand human intelligence, according to an article on the project in MIT Technology Review, such as exploring how young children visualize the world using their own innate 3D models.
“Children’s play is really serious business,” said Josh Tenenbaum, who leads the Computational Cognitive Science lab at MIT and his head of the new program. “They’re experiments. And that’s what makes humans the smartest learners in the known universe.”
In a world increasingly driven by smart technologies, it’s good to know the next generation will be able to keep up.
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