Silicon Valley’s biggest influencers want to get inside your head. Over the past year, four leading figures have announced plans to make gadgets that will either nestle into the fleshy folds of your brain or sit atop your head to read your thoughts from the outside.
The proposed hardware and applications are varied, but all signify ambitious—even audacious—undertakings. Whether working on medical devices to fix a neural deficiency or consumer gizmos to augment normal brainpower, each of the four Valley visionaries promises to have something ready for the market in just a few short years.
Neural engineers have mixed feelings about these high-profile announcements from the likes of Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg. “There’s a lot of excitement when this cast of characters gets involved,” says Paul Sajda, a professor of biomedical engineering at Columbia University, in New York City, and an expert on advanced technologies for brain research.
But Sajda wonders if these deep-pocketed individuals know what they’re getting into. “The typical Silicon Valley attitude is that if you throw enough money at something, you can solve the problem,” Sajda says. While that approach may work for applied technology, he says, it doesn’t necessarily work if there are fundamental science questions that need to be answered—and there are many unanswered questions in neuroscience.
John Donoghue, director of the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering, in Geneva, has steadily worked on a brain-computer interface (BCI) for decades; his team’s BrainGate system has enabled paralyzed people to control robotic arms and computer cursors. Donoghue says he can’t decide whether the sudden Silicon Valley buzz around BCIs will ultimately help or harm his field. “It is valuable to set a really ambitious goal that gets everyone really excited, especially if it drives investment,” he says. “On the other hand, they may be setting false expectations for what can be achieved, which will then create disillusionment.”
Here are the four ventures that could signify the beginning of a new era of neurotech—or the beginning of a brain-tech bubble.
1 – Facebook’s “typing-by-brain” project
“We’re working on a system that will let you type straight from your brain about 5 times faster than you can type on your phone today,” wrote Mark Zuckerberg in an April post. Arguing that invasive brain implants won’t be accepted by the masses, Zuckerberg put the Facebook R&D team to work on inventing a noninvasive wearable technology that can detect “intended speech” in the brain without the user having to say the words aloud. The gear will supposedly translate these thoughts into text at a rate of 100 words per minute.
At a recent conference, project leader Mark Chevillet said the team aims to demonstrate the feasibility of a commercial product within two years. Skeptical neuroscientists note that the current record for typing-by-brain is eight words per minute, a feat achieved with an invasive brain implant.
2 – Openwater’s wearable tech for consumer telepathy
Mary Lou Jepsen is a seasoned Silicon Valley executive who quit a high-powered job at Facebook last August to launch a startup called Openwater. Jepsen says she’s working on an optical-imaging system that provides high-resolution images comparable to MRI scans. The system uses flexible components that could be incorporated in a bandage or tucked inside a hat.
She sees a host of uses for such a technology, including medical imaging to detect clogged arteries and tumors. But the true disruption, Jepsen says, will come from high-resolution brain scans that enable BCI systems to interpret the patterns of neural activity associated with thoughts. “I know it seems outlandish to be talking about telepathy, but it’s [based on] completely solid physics and mathematical principles,” she says. “It’s in reach in the next three years.”
3 – Elon Musk’s new company, Neuralink
You might think Elon Musk already has his hands full as CEO of both Tesla, the electric car company, and SpaceX, the reusable rocket company. Yet in March he revealed a new firm, Neuralink, devoted to building high-bandwidth BCI systems that will be implanted in the brain. Musk has said that an ideal technology won’t require brain surgery, and he has floated the idea of components that could be injected into the bloodstream. While he hasn’t divulged further technical details, neuroscientists say he may be basing his plans on cutting-edge research involving tiny “neural dust” electrodes or mesh electrodes that unfurl in the brain.
Musk’s long-term goal is to invent a BCI that everyday people will use to augment their cognitive abilities. But to get to that general consumer market, Neuralink will first develop a medical product that can gain regulatory approval. “We are aiming to bring something to market that helps with certain severe brain injuries (stroke, cancer lesion, congenital) in about 4 years,” he told a blogger. “I think we are about 8 to 10 years away from this being usable by people with no disability.”
4 – Kernel’s implant
Bryan Johnson made his fortune with the 2013 sale of his online payment company, Braintree, to eBay. Last October he announced that he was putting US $100 million of his money into his new startup, Kernel, to develop an implanted brain prosthetic.
The company’s initial goal was to design an implant that would help people with failing memories, including Alzheimer’s and stroke patients. However, neuroscientists say Kernel has since pivoted to focus on a more general implant that will enable the recording of signals from thousands of neurons at once—and that the company will figure out the best medical applications of that technology down the road.