2.3: Neuralink and the Brain-Machine Interface

NeuraLink Corporate Overview[1]

NeuraLink is a start-up company founded by Elon Musk and others. The aim is to develop a brain-machine interface that can be used to treat serious brain diseases and restore functioning as well as be a source of entertainment and, eventually, human enhancement.

In order to maximize profits and ensure the lowest cost possible to users, NeuraLink wants to develop a single brain-machine interface that accomplishes all these goals. In order to do that, the system will have to be capable of being augmented by applications running on top of the standard operating system (like current smart phones, etc.).

Before getting any further into development, NeuraLink has called a meeting of managers and engineers to discuss how the company should approach certain ethical concerns with the product.

How the System Works

A Brain-Machine Interface (BMI) is a communication system between the brain and the external environment. Neural firings from the user’s brain are encoded in electrophysiological signals. These signals can then be used to control other devices, such as prosthetic limbs or virtual characters. In the longer term, BMIs could be used to control various forms of enhanced technology – such as remote robots or connected exoskeletons, thereby enhancing human physical abilities.

BMIs can also be used to “write” neural information into the brain. This would be useful, for instance, in treating various mental illnesses. This has already been used to treat individuals with depression through “deep-brain stimulation”.

Similarly, although more speculatively, it is believed that the writing function could be used to “unlock” latent capacity in the human brain, thereby enhancing human mental abilities. For instance, it may be possible to enhance memory by stimulating the recall and reuse process which is essential to forming long-term memory. Less speculatively, the BMI could be used to stimulate awareness, functioning much like stimulant drugs do to ensure wakefulness and awareness.

Ethical Concerns

Recent experiments have shown that BMIs are vulnerable to a variety of “brain hacking” activities. This includes the collection of personal information, subliminal advertising or other attention-based brain inputs, and malicious control where the person’s thoughts or actions are controlled by some outside agent.

Researchers at the University of Washington showed how subliminal messaging in a BMI video game – such as bank logos – will result in unintentional neural responses that provide information to the hacker, such as what bank you use. They also discussed how this could be used to determine sexual orientation by quickly displaying sexual images and gauging unintentional responses.

A further possibility, which is evidenced by existing deep-brain stimulation therapies, is the hacking of BMIs to stimulate certain parts of the brain leading to the formation or enhancement of certain preferences. This could be used, for instance, to induce a person to buy a product or increase the likelihood they engage in some action.

Beyond these potential malicious uses of the technology, even the proper use of the technology raises various ethical questions, such as: What happens to a person who is reliant on a BMI to control a prosthetic limb if the BMI ever shuts down or malfunctions? Should we encourage such reliance? Does brain stimulation, even to treat certain conditions, involve an inappropriate changing of a person? How free should individuals be to augment or enhance themselves?

NeuraLink wants to take these concerns seriously, but also recognizes that the NeuraLink device could provide significant benefits to many segments of the population. Given this, they have identified 4 major options…

Option A: The Market Approach

NeuraLink could approach their BMI like current smart phones. To promote ease of access, low cost, and versatility, they could make Software Developer Kits available to third parties and then host the created apps in a neural “app store” much as the iPhone or Android app stores do now. End users could then download whatever apps suit them over the internet, agreeing to provide access to their neural signals to the 3rd party creators.

With this approach, as with existing smart phones, apps may include advertisement which could be targeted based on the user’s neural signals or other information.

Option B: A Closed App Environment with Advertising

NeuraLink could instead keep all app creation “in house” but still provide users the ability to download apps over the internet. This approach would not require NeuraLink to share information about the operating system nor would it intentionally provide access to neural signals to 3rd parties. However, this would significantly reduce the speed at which apps are created, thus reducing the versatility of the BMI.

In order to make up some of the financial shortfall compared to Option 1, NeuraLink could use user neural patterns to target advertising in certain applications. This would allow NeuraLink to reduce the cost of the device.

Option C: A Closed App Environment without Advertising

Same as option 2, but without the advertising. This would reduce NeuraLink’s profits and increase the cost of the device.

Option D: A Locked Down System

Rather than providing an app store at all, NeuraLink could instead create the system with a variety of functions and then lock it from being altered. This would allow NeuraLink to cut the system off from the internet but would significantly reduce the versatility of the device. Additionally, this approach would require users to send their device to NeuraLink for operating system upgrades.

This approach results in the most expensive device and will require NeuraLink to charge for upgrades to maintain a profit.

  1. Sources for case information include: Neuralink.com; Bonaci, et al. (2015). “App Stores for the Brain,” IEEE Technology and Society Magazine; Yuste, et al. (2017). “Four ethical priorities for neurotechnologies and AI,” Nature; Ienca & Haselager (2016). “Hacking the brain,” Ethics and Information Technologies; Bonaci, et al. (2015), “Securing the Exocortex,” IEEE Technology and Society Magazine.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

The Primacy of the Public by Marcus Schultz-Bergin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.