Elon Musk’s Neuralink Wants to Make ‘The Matrix’ a Reality. It Has a Lot to Prove First 马斯克麾下Neuralink想把《黑客帝国》变成现实,技术仍待自证

Ambitions are lofty at the brain-chip implant company, but its immediate future rests on improving life for severely disabled people.
马斯克麾下脑机接口公司Neuralink已首次将大脑芯片植入人体,这是向一个重大的科学前沿迈进了一步。不过,关于Neuralink的技术如何,还有许多问题有待回答。

Elon Musk’s Neuralink Wants to Make ‘The Matrix’ a Reality. It Has a Lot to Prove First 马斯克麾下Neuralink想把《黑客帝国》变成现实,技术仍待自证
Elon Musk has indicated that Neuralink’s implanted brain chip has registered signals from nerve cells that transmit information to other nerve cells. PHOTO: KIRSTY WIGGLESWORTH/ZUMA PRESS

Elon Musk wants to augment perfectly healthy people with brain chips so the human race can keep up with artificial intelligence. That’s how he’s described the ultimate aims of his brain-computer interface company, Neuralink. 

It will take years of research, and successful demonstrations of the technology, before such an aggressive goal is even remotely possible. Meanwhile, the company moved a step closer to a significant scientific advance, one that offers hope to thousands of people with debilitating conditions such as quadriplegia who could eventually regain lost function. 

Musk tweeted late Monday that Neuralink had implanted its brain chip in a human for the first time. He said the patient is “recovering well” and he suggested that the implant had successfully registered signals from neurons, or nerve cells that transmit information to other nerve cells. It is an impressive feat, people in the industry say, not least because the company had to convince the Food and Drug Administration that its technology is safe in order to proceed. It also suggests that the implant is functioning as the company expects it should be, based on its tests in monkeys and pigs.

This isn’t the first brain chip that offers to restore function for people who have lost control of their limbs, said Robert Desimone, director of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, but Neuralink’s advanced technology is intriguing, he said.

“They need sufficient time to work out any kinks in the system, sufficient time to see what its capabilities are and sufficient time to collect safety data to make sure it does not cause any problems,” Desimone said. “Assuming all that checks out, I can’t think of what would keep them from moving forward in additional patients.”

The company said last May that it had received approval from the FDA for its test. An FDA spokeswoman said that the company provided sufficient information to support approval of its application to begin human trials and declined to comment further. Musk hasn’t disclosed any information about the patient outside of his tweets.

Founded in 2016, Neuralink was last valued at $3.5 billion in a round of equity financing raised in November, according to data provider PitchBook. The company competes with a handful of other brain-computer interface companies, including Synchron, which has developed a stent-like device that it has implanted inside the jugular vein on top of a patient’s brain, and Precision Neuroscience, which has temporarily implanted its microelectrode array in six patients to capture test data. 

Musk is known for setting outlandish goals: He wants his rocket company SpaceX to send humans to Mars. The idea of turning humans into cyborgs might be just as ambitious. Even if he falls short, a lot could be accomplished on the way.

Elon Musk’s Neuralink Wants to Make ‘The Matrix’ a Reality. It Has a Lot to Prove First 马斯克麾下Neuralink想把《黑客帝国》变成现实,技术仍待自证
A monkey plays a rudimentary videogame during a test of Neuralink’s brain-chip implant. PHOTO: NEURALINK/ZUMA PRESS

Neuralink’s brain chip, which it calls the “N1,” is about the size of a quarter, with dozens of “threads” that are implanted into brain tissue. Each thread has more than a dozen electrodes. The surgery is “like replacing a chunk of your skull with a smartwatch,” Musk has said, and then sewing the threads into brain tissue so they sit close to neurons and relay their electrical signals. 

The company developed a special robot, the “R1,” which inserts the threads in a fraction of a second. The needle and threads are thinner than a human hair. The robot must take special care to dodge sensitive parts of the vascular system to avoid brain bleeds, a task made harder because the brain moves slightly even when the skull is immobile. 

Reading neural signals and then relaying them to a computer or mobile device holds the key to restoring function for the disabled. Existing technology already does this. Blackrock Neurotech makes a device called the Utah Array that has been used successfully to help patients move a robotic arm with their thoughts, or feed themselves, the company has said. 

Neuralink’s potential advance would be its flexible threads, said MIT’s Desimone, that will move with the brain to avoid the possibility of damage.  

Another potential advance is how much information Neuralink’s chip could read from the brain, akin to moving from dial-up internet to broadband, say experts.

Elon Musk’s Neuralink Wants to Make ‘The Matrix’ a Reality. It Has a Lot to Prove First 马斯克麾下Neuralink想把《黑客帝国》变成现实,技术仍待自证
Source: Neuralink, valuation according to data provider PitchBook as of equity financing in November

For now, many questions remain unanswered about what the company has done, and what its technology will actually achieve in a human subject. Those include how long a patient will be able to tolerate the chip that has been implanted. Some competitors have only tried a human implant for a limited period, such as during a different surgery where a device was temporarily installed to gather data before being immediately removed. 

Other unknowns cited by specialists include what signals the chip can read and for how long, because signals might deteriorate if brain tissue grows around the inserted threads. The signals also have to prove useful for restoring something like motor function.

Neuralink must show not only that its technology works, but that it offers significant benefits—enough to justify a very complex surgery. 

Nothing but time can answer many of these questions. 

“Watching Neo learn kung fu in ‘The Matrix,’ I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I want to work on making that possible,’ ” said another Neuralink co-founder, DJ Seo, at a Neuralink presentation two years ago. “Today, I believe this is a tractable engineering challenge.”

At the same presentation, Musk himself described how increasing the rate at which data is uploaded from our brains to our devices, “is the fundamental limitation that I think we need to address to mitigate the long-term risk of artificial intelligence and also just go along for the ride.”

马斯克(Elon Musk)想把芯片植入完全健康的人类大脑,让人类能够追上AI前进的脚步,这就是马斯克对他麾下脑机接口公司Neuralink终极目标的描述。

这样激进的目标即便有可能实现,也需要若干年的研究和成功的技术展示。但Neuralink还是向一个重大的科学前沿迈进了一步,这将给成千上万行动不便的患者(例如四肢瘫痪者)带来希望,最终可能帮助他们恢复身体机能。

马斯克周一晚间发布推文说,Neuralink已首次将大脑芯片植入人体,称患者“恢复良好”,并暗示植入的芯片已成功检测到神经元发出的信号。业内人士认为,这是一项壮举,尤其是在Neuralink需要向FDA证明其技术安全性的情况下。这也意味着,正像该公司在猴子和猪身上测试后推测的那样,植入人体的大脑芯片正在发挥功能。

麻省理工学院(MIT)麦戈文脑科研究所(McGovern Institute for Brain Research)所长Robert Desimone表示,这并不是第一款旨在让患者恢复肢体机能的大脑芯片,但Neuralink的技术进步令人着迷。

“他们需要足够的时间来解决系统缺陷,了解系统能力,收集安全数据以确保不会出任何问题。”他说:“假使这些都解决了,我想不出还有什么能阻止他们在更多病人身上试验。”

Neuralink去年5月份表示,其试验已获得FDA批准。FDA的一位发言人称,Neuralink为申请人体试验提供了充分的证明材料,但未进一步置评。马斯克除了推文也没有透露上述病人的其他信息。

Neuralink成立于2016年,据数据提供商PitchBook的信息,在去年11月份的股权融资中,Neuralink最新估值达到35亿美元。Neuralin与为数不多的脑机接口公司竞争,其中包括Synchron和Precision Neuroscience。Synchron开发出一款类似支架的设备,并将其植入一名患者大脑顶部的颈静脉。Precision Neuroscience则在六名患者身上临时植入了其开发的微电极阵列,以获取测试数据。

马斯克以制定天马行空的目标而闻名,例如他麾下的火箭公司SpaceX就宣称要把人类送上火星。而把人类变成赛博格的想法同样雄心勃勃,即使失败也会收获满满。

Elon Musk’s Neuralink Wants to Make ‘The Matrix’ a Reality. It Has a Lot to Prove First 马斯克麾下Neuralink想把《黑客帝国》变成现实,技术仍待自证
对Neuralink的大脑芯片植入物进行测试中,一只猴子正在玩初级电子游戏。
图片来源:NEURALINK/ZUMA PRESS

Neuralink把其脑机接口芯片称做N1,这块芯片差不多有25美分硬币那么大,包含许多条可以被植入脑组织的“线”(thread)。每根线上有十几个电极。马斯克说,手术就像用一块智能手表取代一部分头骨,然后把线缝到脑组织里,让它们靠近神经元,接收并传递其电信号。

该公司开发了一种特殊的机器人“R1”,能在刹那间把线穿进去。针和线都比人的头发丝还要细。机器人必须特别小心地避开血管系统的敏感部位,避免脑出血,由于大脑即使在头骨不动的情况下也会轻微移动,这项任务变得更加困难。

Elon Musk’s Neuralink Wants to Make ‘The Matrix’ a Reality. It Has a Lot to Prove First 马斯克麾下Neuralink想把《黑客帝国》变成现实,技术仍待自证

读取神经信号并将信号传递给电脑或移动设备,是让残障人士恢复身体机能的关键。现在的技术已经可以做到这一点。Blackrock Neurotech制造的“犹他阵列”(Utah Array)设备已经成功地帮助病人用意念移动机械臂或进食。

麻省理工学院的Desimone表示,灵活的线可能是Neuralink技术的先进之处,这些线可以随着大脑移动,避免了损伤的可能。

专家们说,另一个进步可能是Neuralink芯片从大脑中读取的信息量,这个进步就好像从拨号上网迈入宽带上网。

关于Neuralink取得了哪些进展,以及Neuralink技术在人体中有哪些实际应用,还有许多问题有待回答,其中包括病人对植入芯片的耐受时间。同行业的一些竞争者只尝试过在有限的时间内将芯片植入人体,比如在其他手术中临时安装设备收集数据,然后立即取出。

专家们提到的其他未解问题还包括Neuralink芯片能读取什么信号,以及能读取多久。如果脑组织在植入线周围生长,信号可能会变差。这些信号还必须证明对恢复人体运动等机能有作用。

Neuralink不仅要证明自己的技术,还要证明其技术能够带来明确的好处,只有这样才值得去做一场非常复杂的手术。

这些问题许多只能留给时间去回答。

两年前,Neuralink的另一位创始人DJ Seo在一次Neuralink演示会上说:“当初看《黑客帝国》里尼奥学功夫,我就想,哇,我要把这变成可能。“如今,我相信这个工程挑战不难逾越了。”

马斯克本人则在同一场演示中指出,人类大脑向设备传输数据的速度“是我们需要解决的根本瓶颈,这既是化解AI长期风险的关键,也是大势所趋”。

原创文章,作者:Xaiat超级会员,如若转载,请注明出处:https://www.xaiat.com/elon-musks-neuralink-wants-to-make-the-matrix-a-reality-it-has-a-lot-to-prove-first/

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