Elon Musk’s computer-brain interface company Neuralink has done what seems like it should be impossible: it was able to get a macaque monkey named Pager to play Pong with its mind (and the Neuralink chip) alone. One only wonders what a human could do with such a device.
The chip, called a “Link”, is inserted into Pager’s brain so that it can read patterns of electrical activity in his brain and output them to an outside computer. In this case, it was connected to the simplest video game of all time, Pong.
At first, Pager played the game with a simple joystick, rewarded with a sip of banana smoothie when the right move was played. When the joystick was removed, he was still able to play effortlessly using only his mind.
It’s difficult to tell whether this is more of an accomplishment from the piece of technology implanted in the Macaque’s brain or the Macaque’s ability to work out how to use it.
Apes and Monkeys Are Smarter Than You Think
Humans are often thought to have infinitely more basic intelligence than other members of the great ape family but that is simply not true. Sure humans can do many things that other great apes cannot but the intelligence of other apes are still remarkable.
Michael Stevens, also known by his YouTube channel name Vsauce, explored one of the most impressive skills of other great apes in his show called Mind Field.
Stevens went to Japan’s Primate Research Institute to watch Chimpanzees complete a memory game. The Chimpanzee is first shown an image of a series of numbers randomly jumbled across the screen for less than a second. Then, the numbers are obscured and it has to tap where the numbers were in numerical order.
Stevens discovered that Chimpanzees are actually much better at the memory game than humans. They seem to have drastically better and more detailed short-term memory.
There is also a staggering amount of evidence showing that some great apes (other than humans) are actually creating tools to exchange with others or save future use. The Max Planck Institute’s deep dive paper on the subject is as enlightening as it is interesting.
What Could Humans Do With a Neuralink Chip?
On the surface, brain chips seem like a dystopian advance in biotechnology used only to control the masses and they likely could be used in that way (in the future). However, the potential benefits of such a computer-brain interface are absolutely staggering.
If a macaque monkey can play pong with only his mind using one of these chips and great apes are already impressively intelligent, what could humans do with it?
The first and most promising use for a Link or similar chip is to fix or at least diminish disabilities of all kinds. They could potentially eliminate paralysis caused by spine or brain injuries. The chip would create a new pathway to control limbs, replacing the broken, natural one.
This may seem like it’s more of a fantasy than a real prospect of the technology but this has already been successfully attempted.
Gert-Jan Oskam was paralyzed from the hips down in a motorcycle accident and was told that he would never walk again. After 12 years of pain and suffering, scientists were able to help him walk normally again (with only the help of a walker) by inserting a “digital bridge” between his spinal cord and brain.
Grégoire Courtine, a spinal cord expert who helped lead the research, described the process by saying: “We’ve captured the thoughts of Gert-Jan, and translated these thoughts into a stimulation of the spinal cord to re-establish voluntary movement.”
Some other proposed uses of a brain-computer interface are a bit more dystopian-sounding. Multiple people with chip implants could connect with each other to exchange thoughts, images or stories. They could even merge to an extreme degree becoming a sort of hivemind.
They could also potentially replace keyboards, touch screens, mice, and more to directly control computers with only our thoughts. Just try not to have any intrusive thoughts before your computer acquiesces and sends that ex a rambling message.
Some of these applications may be coming sooner than you think as Musk’s Neuralink recently secured FDA approval to run human trials with the chip.
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