Biological and Ethical Concerns of Advancements in BMI at Neuralink

November 14th, 2021. By Olivia Petri '25


- What is Brain-Machine Interface (BMI)?

- Benefits of Neuralink

- Biological concerns

- Elon Musk's extreme goals for Neuralink

- Ethical concerns

In order to truly appreciate the bases of the article one must first understand the fundamentals of the Brain-Machine Interface (BMI). BMIs are tiny electrodes implanted in the human brain that intake brain signals, interpret them, and rewrite them as commands. Then, these commands inform an external device, such as a computer, smartphone, or prosthetic limb, to perform a given task through electroencephalogram (EEG). An EEG consists of electrodes, which are little metal discs with thin wires, which are deposited onto your scalp during the operation. The electrodes detect minute electrical charges produced by your brain cells' activity.

BMIs do not use the brain’s conventional output system (through pathways of the peripheral nervous system and muscles) to transmit data. Instead, they use nerve signals produced by the central nervous system to transmit the incoming data. An example of a BMI application is a wirelessly-controlled prosthetic, which paralyzed individuals can control through their brains. The brain would transmit signals and they would be interpreted by the BMIs that would in turn initiate the trigger to activate the prosthetics to perform desired functions. Multiple institutions, including Brown University, have worked on designing and prototyping BMIs that are able to use signals from the brain to trigger a robotic arm to perform a specific task. In the referenced video, the BMI grants the control of prostheses, communication, and feeling to a person who is in a paralyzed state.

What does Neuralink have to do with BMIs?

Neuralink, a neurotechnology company founded by Elon Musk, focuses on the research and development of BMIs. Neuralink’s goal is to establish wireless connection between the brain and an outside device such as a computer or smartphone. This incredibly complex procedure is to be accomplished by implanting a tiny component, the size of a coin, into the brain employing minimally invasive robotic surgery. One of the frequently quoted examples is an ability of our internal thoughts to be transmitted to the external system and displayed on the screen, replacing traditional typing.

Regardless of Neuralink’s many potential advantages,, there are also major biological concerns surrounding the usage of BMIs. One of these concerns is the size of the implanted BMI component; it is not small enough to be easily inserted into the brain, requiring extremely invasive surgery. This is necessary because non-invasive surgeries could result in a lower spatial resolution and are also less accurate. In addition surgery presents the a possibility of infection. Although most infections are non-fatal, they require the application of strong antibiotics and removal of the device, which exposes the brain to potentially more infections and abrasions. Another biological concern with BMIs is the possibility of implanted device failures. It might be especially troubling for patients with the devices that are already implanted in the brain. In some instances, a patient with a defective implanted device is at risk of experiencing brain hemorrhaging, which is often fatal.

In addition to biological concerns around BMIs, we must also consider ethical implications. Neuralink is pushing the boundaries of what was previously possible, and this begs for establishing new confinements. The moral and ethical considerations are critical when it comes to neurotechnology as it interferes with the human brain, the epicenter of our personalities, thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Musk and his associates believe that in the near future, there will be no need for multiple languages. His theory goes as far as potentially eliminating the human need and ability to speak. Musk claims that there could be a single, unified language used across the globe, and it doesn’t have to be spoken – it could be wirelessly and voiceless transmitted between the implanted devices. “One day in the future there's going to come a time where you can read each other's minds and you'll be able to interface with each other in some sort of a nonverbal, non-physical way where you will transfer data back and forth to each other without having to actually use your mouth." Musk does not only believe that there will be no need to speak, but he also claims we might not need physical contact anymore. This implies that not only does the verbal language disappear but so does the sign language and body language. There is a difference between helping society and expanding our knowledge of the brain and eradicating social norms that have been embedded into humans' way of life since the inception, such as communicating through sound. Another ethical concern is the ownership and access to the data collected by the implanted devices. As it stands today, both would be a property of the company that manufactured the device. It opens the door for hackers to take over the control of BMIs. It presents a significant vulnerability as it exposes our most intimate property - our thoughts. There is a possibility of passing control over our emotions and our bodies to intruders which might have unimaginable consequences.

The BMI technology might be a breakthrough in the medical field addressing the needs of many neurologically challenged patients. However, there are still unanswered questions and significant biological and ethical concerns surrounding the BMI. There is still a lot of gray area when it comes to biological and ethical concerns with BMIs. Even though they can enhance capabilities of people who suffer from disabilities, it could potentially harm those who are perfectly healthy. Where are the boundaries to set when it comes to BMIs?


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