Solar-powered self-driving cars, reusable space ships, Hyperloop transportation, a mission to colonize Mars: Elon Musk is hell-bent on turning these once-far-fetched fantasies into reality. But none of these technologies has made him as leery as artificial intelligence. Earlier this summer at Code Conference 2016, Musk stated publicly that given the current rate of A.I. advancement, humans could ultimately expect to be left behind—cognitively, intellectually—“by a lot.” His solution to this unappealing fate is a novel brain-computer interface similar to the implantable “neural lace” described by the Scottish novelist Iain M. Banks in Look to Windward, part of his “Culture series” books. Along with serving as a rite of passage, it upgrades the human brain to be more competitive against A.I.’s with human-level or higher intelligence.
Smarter artificial intelligence is certainly being developed, but how far along are we on producing a neural lace? At the conference, Musk said he didn’t know of any company that was working on one. But last year, a team of researchers led by Charles Lieber, the Mark Hyman Professor of Chemistry at Harvard University, described in Nature Nanotechnology a lace-like electronic mesh that “you could literally inject” into three-dimensional synthetic and biological structures like the brain. That was a major step.
His team’s paper, published on August 29th in Nature Methods, expands on that earlier work, to show that mesh-brain implants readily integrate into a mouse brain and enable neuronal recordings for at least eight months. “In science, I’ve been disappointed at times, and this is a case where we’ve been more than pleasantly surprised,” Lieber says. What does this development really mean for those of us who hope to acquire a neural lace?
I recently spoke with Lieber, arguably one of the scientists capable of making this sci-fi prediction come true.
Is the goal of your lab to create something like the neural lace Elon Musk mentioned this summer?
I don’t really think it’s so unrealistic. Someone can say, “Well, we can do a lot of stuff with brain-machine interfaces already,” and that’s true. But I think the actual interface to the brain is so crude today, and it relies a lot on the power of the computing or signal analysis outside of the brain. What we’re trying to do is make an electronic circuit that can communicate neurally—or what Elon Musk called it, a neural lace—and, even though it’s a man-made structure, looks to the biological system the same as the natural network.
At the outset no one, and a lot of reviewers of that first paper, believed we could even inject electronics through a needle and then not destroy the electronics. A lot of it was actually not related to anything biological. It was really about the materials science, and also showing that you could literally inject this into other kinds of structures. Also, other implanted electronics in the brain always cause some type of immune response and damage, probably due to the combination of putting something really rigid into this soft tissue: Whenever you move around and your brain moves, it moves different than this thing. It can destroy cells; but also, because it’s much bigger, it’s apparently easier for the cells or the biological system to recognize it as something foreign and try to attack it.
But our philosophy, it seems, is going to be really rewarding because it solves the immune-response problem, and then allows us now to do measurements and modulate neural circuits. It’s basically for the lifetime of the rodents that we’ve been working with, which is pretty unprecedented.
Is it correct to say, as Iain M. Banks describes in his novels, that the neural lace molds to the brain, which then grows around it and incorporates it?
The brain grows literally throughout the neural lace. When it’s injected, this two-dimensional mesh ends up being like a cylinder that’s still a mesh, and it gets filled with the tissue. In some process, we don’t understand all the details, there’s obviously some regrowth, and some remodeling of the tissue refills this space where the needle initially moved all the tissue out of the way. Then you’re left with something where it’s interpenetrating between this roughly cylindrical structure of the mesh. You could envision co-injecting this network, the mesh or lace, with stem cells and literally regrowing damaged tissue. Using some stimulation and stuff, you could help to rewire this in the way you want—somewhat science fiction, but also not totally crazy. It’s certainly in the realm of what’s physically possible.
What do you think about Elon Musk’s statement that we need the neural lace to compete with super-intelligent AI?
Yeah. I think that’s a good thing, but I see it as two ways....MORE