While the tech sounds outlandish, brain-computer interfaces are already leaving the lab and entering the market. Devices such as BrainGate’s wireless receiver can translate electrical activity in brain cells into movement of a cursor or robotic arm. Yet the technology is still bulky and confined to limited areas of the brain. A full-on mesh envisioned by Musk would exponentially increase the scope and capability of such devices.

An electronic mesh successfully merging with brain cells in mice
An electronic mesh successfully merging with brain cells in mice
Image: Charles Lieber

In 2015, scientists publishing in Nature Nanotechnology reported successfully injecting an ultra-fine mesh into mice brains. Thousands of scientific articles on digital connections to human and animal brains have been published since then. The military announced it was pouring at least $60 million into figuring out how to communicate with individual neurons in the human brain, and the 20-person startup Kernel is spending more than $100 million to develop related technology.

For now, digital-brain interfaces are being pitched as a way to monitor brain activity, enhance cognition, treat brain disorders and restore movement to paralyzed limbs and to control prosthetics. A neural lace-style product is still years away—even on Musk’s notoriously ambitious timelines. Musk eventually hopes the technology will let humans stay ahead of machines with superior intelligence and agency (not that all computer scientists believe machines will ever pose a threat).

Musk co-founded the non-profit OpenAI in 2015 to help design “digital intelligence in the way that is most likely to benefit humanity as a whole.” Helping humans become cyborgs offers another safeguard against an AI run amok. “I don’t love the idea of being a house cat, but what’s the solution?” Musk said at Vox Media’s Code Conference in California last year. “I think one of the solutions that seems maybe the best is to add an AI layer [to humans].”

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