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Meet the Man Who Has Been Working on Elon Musk’s Neural Lace (interview)

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INTRO: 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. 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. He’s since co-founded Neuralink to do just that (“Neuralink is developing ultra high bandwidth brain-machine interfaces to connect humans and computers”). But research on neural laces has been well under way. In 2015, 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 2016 paper, published 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. “We have worked under the premise that by matching the structural and mechanical properties of the electronic and biological systems, which are traditionally viewed as distinct entities, it should be possible to achieve seamless integration,” Lieber and his colleagues wrote this year, in a paper in Current Opinion in Neurobiology. What does this development really mean for those of us who hope to acquire a neural lace?

Nautilus spoke with Lieber, arguably one of the scientists capable of making this sci-fi prediction come true....


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