The Future of Engineering With the Brain: An Analysis of Neuralink

by Kavya Balaji and Aastha Bhandari

Nerualink is Elon Musk’s venture to merge man with machine, to ensure that the level of human cognitive reasoning is brought to a higher level; by doing so ensuring that humans keep pace with the advance in the intellectual progress of machines. The end goal of this project is to ensure that humans keep pace with the advance in the intellectual progress of machines. This article seeks to analyse the intricate functioning of a Brain Interface System and how Neuralink plans to use it. Further, the article delves into the aspect of empowering heath care through AI and how Neuralink plans to use ‘Neural Engineering’ to execute the same. Lastly, the article tries to analyse the security of the link owing to its control over human sensory actions. To conclude, the article, investigates the future implications of this technology.

“NEURALINK” is a brain-computer interface technology whose physical ultra-thin mesh consisting of almost 3,072 electrodes per array with each electrode approximately being 4 to 6 mm making it considerably thinner than even human hair. Other components of it include a battery and Bluetooth. The implant will be inserted in the primary mortar cortex. To ensure that the insertion of the implant takes place with the utmost precision, a robot has been specifically developed for the purpose of inserting the implant. The Neuralink implant will be connected to the Neuralink app would allow the individual to control the IOS device, keyboard and mouse directly simply by thinking about it. The aspiration of Neuralink as expressed by Elon Musk include the restoration of eyesight and limb function, treat epilepsy and even upload and download information.

Brain-machine interface and Neuralink:

Neuralink is an implantable brain-machine interface (BMI). It essentially created a direct communication pathway between the brain and external device.[1] The purpose of BMIs is to assist, augment, repair human cognitive or sensory and motor function, which the Neuralink seek to achieve. Nicolas-Alonso and Gomez Girl define BMI as “as a hardware and software communication system which enables human beings to interact with their surrounding without the involvement of peripheral nerves and muscles, and by using control signals generated from electroencephalographic activity”.[2] These signals generated then translated into digital commands that are used to accomplish the intentions of the users like opening the app and using the keyboard to type.[3]  This specific type of BMI is an invasive BMI, which is directly implanted into the brain during neurosurgery. This is the greatest advantage that an invasive BMI poses as it in the grey matter thereby enabling it to produce the highest quality signals and minimal noise[4]. This is because the implants within the brain are especially useful as they w  scientists to read the firing of hundreds of neurons in the brain. [5] The clarity in the commands is due to the close proximity the electrodes with the neurons.   However, the greatest drawback that this device poses is the damage that it may do to the brain.  Due to the fact that it is an invasive implant, it is more prone to scar tissue build-up which will eventually cause the signals to become weaker or even lost due to the body reaction to the presence of a foreign object in the brain.

Neural Engineering and Neuralink:

The Journal of Neural Engineering defines the field as “an emerging interdisciplinary research area that brings to bear neuroscience and engineering methods to analyse neurological functions as well as to design solutions to problems associated with neurological limitation and dysfunction’.[6] The main purpose of this field is to provide solutions for neuroscience-related problems and to provide rehabilitative solution for nervous system conditions.[7] Neuralink seeks to address these concerns and more. With its ability to connect to thousands of neurons in the brain it can record neuron activity, process it and send that information to the Link.

The first application of Neuralink is to aid individuals with spinal cord injuries. This is theorised to work via the control of the computers or mobile using their brains. This takes by first recording the neural activity in the brain’s movement area. The user’s commands of wanting to move their arms or hands will be decoded and sent to the Bluetooth present in the users’ device. To ensure that the user is acclimatised to the workings of Neuralink, initially, the individual will be thought to control a virtual mouse and with practice, users will be introduced to adaptive decoding algorithms which will allow them to control several devices.

Neuralink symbolises the beginning of a new epoch in Neural Engineering. If successful, the technology will not only be limited to the restoration of neural capabilities of individuals but has the potential to revolutionise the very basis of human interaction.

Implications for this technology in the field of Healthcare:

Neuralink has a medical focus to begin with. One of the primary functions of the link would be to help people with sensory disabilities like paralysis which has been caused by injuries to the spinal cord. The technology would help them regain control of their mobile phones or other electronic devices. They would simply be able to control it using their mind “If you can sense what people want to do with their limbs, you can do a second implant where the spinal injury occurred and create a neural shunt,” Musk said.[8] Additionally, the founder, Elon Musk, is confident that he will be able to restore an individual’s entire body motion using the link in the long run.

 As explained above, Neuralink plans to use the concept of ‘Neural Engineering’ by introducing it into the field of medicine and surgery. For the purpose of carrying out the same, it is building a ‘robotic installer.’ This technology will be designed to handle the entire surgical operation of installation of the link or the chip into the human brain. The functions of this technology will include but are not be limited to, opening up the human scalp and removing a portion of the skull, inserting several thread electrodes along with a computer chip inside the brain and independently closing the incision itself. “The installer is designed to dodge blood vessels to avoid bleeding”, Musk said.[9] This innovation at the intersection of Artificial Intelligence and healthcare is extremely progressive for individuals suffering from neural injuries. However, with the powerful technology of a robot installer, comes the important issue of liability for medical negligence. This raises serious questions relating to the injury arising out of negligence and the question of probable vicarious liability of the Artificial Intelligence for such an injury. Liability for medical negligence falls upon a medical practitioner who fails to adhere to the required ‘duty of care.’ These issues of law need to be addressed before the technology is launched and put to action. Hospitals are vicariously liable for any negligence by their employees or deficiency of services provided by them. The hospital can also be made responsible for any independent contractors or visiting doctors/surgeons. These judicial precedents imply that in case of injury due to AI’s fault, hospitals are also liable. The jurisprudence behind this is to widen the responsibility of the hospital and to allow the complainant to recover compensation for injury. However, there are greater intricacies to be dealt with by legislators to regulate the use of AI in the field of surgery. 

Neuralink chips can measure temperature, pressure and movement, data that could warn you about a heart attack or stroke. The safety and health risks of invasive implants are significant,” added Sid Kouider, founder and CEO of NextMind, a Neuralink competitor.[10] According to him, problems include infection, inflammation and follow-up surgery to adjust electrode positioning. On the other hand, with his system, a specially-trained sewing robot would actually drill a hole into a person’s head and implant the Neuralink chip into their skull, connecting to the brain with a thousand small wires. This type of advancement in brain-computer interfaces would mean that people could interact directly with devices using their thoughts instead of a keyboard, mouse, or touchscreen. For those afflicted with brain disorders or illnesses, adaptive technology like this could mean a chance at a more inclusive life.

Analyzing Security Concerns:

Neuralink proposes to be compatible with the renowned smartphone platforms like Apple IOS and Google Android. This makes the aspect of data security massively significant. Since the link will make the use of these smartphone platforms, we must deliberate upon what websites or applications will be given the authority to use an individual’s ‘Neuralink data.’ Hackers could intercept data traveling from the Brain-machine interface to the brain, allowing them to gather sensitive data such as logins for emails and other systems.  Further, researchers note that malicious software could be transmitted to the technology, allowing attackers to show the user images or feed fake versions of the neural inputs to control the Brain-machine interface. This question further delves into the issue of cybersecurity. If a third-party application is given permission to access the Neuralink data in the form of back-end brain data, the issues concerning privacy as well as security of the individual come into play. It would be difficult to crystallise upon what information is being transmitted to third-party app’s vendors. Further, if we shift the conversation from cybersecurity to cloud, it is not too difficult to imagine a situation wherein hackers try to hack into the link  to steal an individual’s bank end brain data. This poses a risk to the security of the individual in its entirety. There must be a guarantee from the company’s side that it has a developed mechanism to deal with such associated threats. Hacking of brain data would lead to a collapse of the entire technology. We must also consider possibilities like black-marketing of this back-end data by hackers to invade the thoughts and memories of individuals.

It must be noted that the functioning of brain-controlled technology is dependant upon existing forms of wireless communication like Bluetooth. It is highly likely that the link will make use of Bluetooth to interface between the implanted chip in the human brain and smart devices like smart phones, wireless headphones, keyboards and much more. Although Bluetooth is relatively safe from hackers, Neuralink must develop a mechanism to protect the implanted individuals from ‘trojan viruses’ that can be used to steal the back-end brain data. Further, the brain chip and its connection to an outside device could be used to track one’s geographical location. This poses a threat of 24/7 surveillance by government bodies. Since hackers will potentially be able to get access to back-end brain data as well as erase memories and induce the same, governments could hack into the chip to propagate their political and ideological propagandas. Further, since the BMI will be connected to our devices, we must consider the possibility of surveillance through our location detected through ‘Location services,’ at a more micromanaged level. 

The founder, Musk or the company has not addressed these security as well as privacy concerns as of now. The link has still not begun clinical trials and as such these questions remain to be answered in the far future. However, we must acknowledge that while Neuralink can have a substantial impact on the lives of individuals with spinal cord injuries, it can also lead to the creation of a surveillance state,  control of the human mind, access to absolutely sensitive personal data and various other unimaginable things. The functions that the link proposes to carry out are quite like the events of a ‘Black Mirror’ episode. The consequences of the same are yet to be known. One of the episodes in Black Mirror titled, ‘The Entire History of You, showcases a world where majority of the individuals have implanted a device called the ‘grain’ behind their ear. Through this device, they can record everything they see and hear. Thus, they have a data bank of their memories and lived experiences that they can re-play whenever they want. Although something like this seems like a distant reality, Musk’s ideas are lingering very close to such a reality.

Implications for the Future

Although the primary focus of Neuralink is to aid individuals with spinal cord injuries at the outset, it is Musk’s vision to use this technology of Brain-Machine Interface and Neural Engineering for non-medical Brain-Machine Interfaces as well. This leaves a lot of questions unanswered. How can one predict the use of these interfaces to non-medical uses in the long run? Will the BMI’s be safe for individuals to use? How would the law regulate the use of such BMI’s? This technology could lead to unimaginable possibilities. Though, Neuralink is still in its initial stages, it is important to deliberate upon the implications of this technology for the future. This is a significant sign of the need for the development of stringent and comprehensive international laws to regulate Artificial Intelligence. If we are preparing ourselves for a real-life Black Mirror episode in the foreseeable future, we must develop mechanisms to deal with the same.


[1]  Swaminathan, R., & Prasad, S. (1970, January 01). Brain Computer Interface Used in Health Care Technologies. Retrieved September 12, 2020, from https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-981-287-670-6_6

[2]  Wolpaw, J. R., & Wolpaw, E. W. (2012). Brain-computer interfaces: Principles and practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press

[3] Wang, W., Sudre, G., Xu, Y., Kass, R., Collinger, J., Degenhart, A., . . . Weber, D. (2010, November). Decoding and cortical source localization for intended movement direction with MEG. Retrieved October 05, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2997025/

[4]  Olaronke, I., Ikono, R., Gambo, I., & Ojerinde, O. A. (2018, October). (PDF) Prospects and Problems of Brain Computer Interface in Healthcare. Retrieved September 12, 2020, from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/328461488_Prospects_and_Problems_of_Brain_Computer_Interface_in_Healthcare

[5] Loo, A., Mangal, M., Kosterman, L., Luquetta, R., & Ghattas, R. G. (2014). Brain computer interface. Miramar,  FL: DeVry University South Florida.

[6] Durand1, D. (2006, September 01). IOPscience. Retrieved October 013, 2020, from https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1741-2552/4/4/E01/meta

[7] Durand1, D. (2006, September 01). IOPscience. Retrieved October 013, 2020, from https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1741-2552/4/4/E01/meta

[8] Fritschle, M. (2019, August 22). Will Neuralink’s Brain Chip Be the Next Big Thing in Healthcare? Retrieved October 16, 2020, from https://www.aumcore.com/blog/2019/08/22/will-neuralinks-brain-chip-be-the-next-big-thing-in-healthcare/

[9] Fritschle, M. (2019, August 22). Will Neuralink’s Brain Chip Be the Next Big Thing in Healthcare? Retrieved October 16, 2020, from https://www.aumcore.com/blog/2019/08/22/will-neuralinks-brain-chip-be-the-next-big-thing-in-healthcare/

[10] Fritschle, M. (2019, August 22). Will Neuralink’s Brain Chip Be the Next Big Thing in Healthcare? Retrieved October 16, 2020, from https://www.aumcore.com/blog/2019/08/22/will-neuralinks-brain-chip-be-the-next-big-thing-in-healthcare

About the Author

Kavya Balaji and Aastha Bhandari are pursuing Bachelors in Law from O. P. Jindal Global University. They are also in-house researchers with The Digital Future.


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