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A number of startups have recently chosen to leap into a market that many would consider science fiction, developing implantable systems that are able to listen to, interpret and speak with individual neurons within the brain. Their research is guided by recent advancements in our understanding of the human neural network, in combination with advancements in computing capability, mathematical modeling and machine learning.

Some of these startups have very targeted goals, such as treating one particular condition, under one Medicare code, in one specific region of the brain. Still, all seem to share a common end goal - to understand the functional system of the brain and interact with it. Companies, such as Ni2o.com and Neuralink, are looking towards even more futuristic implants, reading and writing to thousands or even millions of individual neurons with extremely high precision and bandwidth, with very different approaches.​

These products will eventually provide continuous analysis and regulation of firing signals in realtime, a capability that will greatly enhance both the effectiveness of the implant and greatly improve the quality of life for millions of chronic patients around the world. Professor Newton Howard from the Nuffield Department of Surgical Sciences and Elon Musk see these implantable devices as being the inevitable future of a “digital tertiary layer” that we are already embedding ourselves within, with email, mobile phones and technology in general. Elon has often spoken about his concerns over the potential dangers of AI and now believes that humanity will eventually require this type of radical cognitive enhancement if it hopes to ever keep up. While Professor Howard sees the new developments as departure into a middle lane approach, from the classical AI of either augmenting human or augmenting a Machine. 

They both could be right. 

Professor Howard hopes​ for this technology to store individual dignity from NDD (Neuro Degenerative Disorder) and other disorders, for those inflected; and restoration from evolutionary ditraration to our cortical capacity. 

He further commented that in the near term we will see increasingly small and complex devices being used to treat an ever-widening group of chronic disorders. Due to the excessive cost and risk associated with highly invasive procedures such as craniotomies, only very extreme cases within a very small subset of disorders is currently approved for treatment. However, as the devices get smaller, safer, less invasive and less expensive, they will become far more widely adopted, as Professor Howard explains to France 24. ​

Elon Musk has often spoken about his desire to develop a “neural lace”, although his company has been somewhat secretive to date as to how they plan to build it. Neuralink currently only provides a one-sentence description of what it is they do on their website, stating that they are “developing ultra high bandwidth brain-machine interfaces to connect humans and computers.” As for their timeframe, Elon has stated that the company is “aiming to bring something to market that helps with certain severe brain injuries (stroke, cancer lesion, congenital) in about four years”.

While he claimed to combat neurological disorders with their first implants, but also has a very clear end goal of wanting to augment human ability. He envisions a “total recall” future for humanity, in which one will be able “to scroll through your memories (just) like your Instagram feed, to perfectly recall everything you've ever learned, to immediately access every section of your life history.” He also speaks of sharing experiences by simply thinking them to one another, a future that could be closer than anyone yet realises.

Recent work from Professor Howard has shown that bistable (ie. computable) optical circuitry is endogenous within the human neocortex, implying that higher-order thought may in fact be optical in nature, rather than electrochemical. This ​revolutionary ​discovery would seemingly explain the famous Energy Paradox of the Brain - how a very slow, three pound mass of gelatin, powered with barely enough electricity to light a bulb (dimly) is able to run millions of times faster than our fastest supercomputer. If we were to use today’s chips to develop a supercomputer that operated as quickly as a human brain, it would require an entire hydroelectric dam to power it. Professor Howard is now working to develop the necessary nanotechnology and optoelectronics to probe and drive this newly-discovered optical layer with his company Ni2o (for neural-input-to-output) at the Institut du Cerveau et de la Moelle Epinnière in Paris​. He was recently interviewd by French magazine LePoint - watch the video.

By all indications, next-generation devices will be radically different from today’s systems, in that they will connect (and communicate) at neural scale. Ni2o has stated that they expect to be able to communicate bi-directionally with a million neurons in real-time .. within ​less than two years. The company is designing a more general-purpose implant capable of multi-regional interventions that will use sophisticated onboard AI to experimentally “learn” the meaning of the signals it encounter​s.

Professor Howard hopes that his approach will provide researchers with the toolset needed to decode the “Language of the Brain,” a breakthrough that would bring innumerable insights to the field and likely transform medicine as we know it.

Whichever company wins the race to market, the real winner will be humanity itself.