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Thought Speed Limit: Why Elon Musk’s Brain Chip Won’t Give You Telepathy

  Recently, a tweet by Elon Musk on X (formerly Twitter) caught people’s attention. The entrepreneur claims that sticking electrodes to people’s heads will dramatically increase the rate at which data can be transferred to and from the human brain.
  Musk’s post came as his brain-computer interface company Neuralink announced it was officially seeking the first volunteer to receive the “N1” implant, an implant composed of 1,024 electrodes. Able to capture the activity of brain neurons.
  The company said the volunteer will be someone who has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or is paralyzed by a spinal cord injury. The purpose of the experiment was to allow them to “control external devices with their thoughts.” Specifically, moving the cursor on the screen or controlling apps on your phone. It’s not surprising that they were able to accomplish this, as similar experiments have been conducted for decades.
  One difference is that the N1 device has more than twice the number of electrodes used in previous implant experiments. More electrodes mean Neuralink can collect more data from more neurons.
  That’s what Musk’s tweet highlighted, in which he discussed a long-term goal of dramatically increasing the “bandwidth” between humans, or humans and machines, by a factor of 1,000 or more. What on earth is he talking about? Is this really possible? Are we talking about some kind of fast telepathy, fast enough to tell you what happened in my day in a second?
  The truth is, the idea of ​​using brain implants to speed up communication between humans is largely nonsense. However, there is no problem in speeding up the speed at which machines read data from the brain, which is key to some cutting-edge applications in the field of brain-computer interfaces, such as allowing deeply paralyzed people to “speak” through computers.
  In this case, “bandwidth” simply refers to the rate at which data is transferred. Scientists estimate that humans share information at around 40 bits per second, regardless of language. That’s slow, and a computer’s download speed is a million times faster.
  This speed may never get faster, and the reason is simple. Have you ever experienced two people talking to you at the same time? Your ears pick up all the information, but your brain can’t process it. The speed of thought itself limits your bandwidth.
  Lee Miller, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University who studies brain interfaces, said: “The idea that we can connect two people with a data cable and then communicate between you and me faster than we can now is stupid. If this That’s the plan, I won’t invest in it.”
  However, scientists also acknowledge that in some cases faster data transmission could lead to fundamental changes in the way we express ourselves. Let’s say you’ve been mugged and you want to describe your assailant’s face to the police. Although you can imagine it clearly, it takes you a while to convey these details at a 40 bits per second dictation rate.
  Theoretically, the images in our minds can be communicated directly between brains. Researchers describe the case of Krista and Tatiana Hogan, conjoined twins who share part of their brain. It is claimed that they can see through each other’s eyes, sharing information from the retina into the optic nerve at 10 million bits per second.
  In fact, Neuralink has begun studying whether its implanted electrodes can stimulate the visual cortex of monkeys. The vision produced this way is very crude, essentially just a few points of light, but with more and more electrodes the vision gets better. One day, we might be able to use a data cable to transfer a photo between two brains.
  Vikash Khilga, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, said: “Musk has thought a lot about mental imagery, and I believe he is imagining a future in which the imagery I am thinking about can be conveyed to you, or directly in “Activate stimuli in your visual cortex.”
  So more bandwidth might have an impact, not in terms of speeding up speech, but in terms of unexpected forms of thought transfer. For example, we can measure the brain to detect emotional states, such as whether a person is depressed. Not only are these feelings difficult to describe, but you may not even be aware of them.
  Matt Angela, CEO of Paradromics, a Texas-based company, said: “I think brain-computer interfaces can read out some very interesting things. For example, people can’t communicate very easily now. Reading from different brain areas The electrodes taken can provide information that cannot be… consciously accessed.”
  But let’s get back to reality and short-term use cases for brain-computer interfaces. Do they need more bandwidth? The primary purpose of these devices is to allow paralyzed people to operate a computer by moving a cursor. To achieve this, no more bandwidth is actually required. Scientists can do this by listening to a few neurons; adding more neurons usually brings negative gains.
  Where gathering more information and implanting more electrodes would help is unlocking more natural ways of communicating. We’ve seen a few cases of this this year, including two paralyzed people being able to converse using their minds through a computer.
  This works because as the subjects imagine saying the words, the electrodes measure their motor neurons, whose firing rates contain information about how they are trying to move their tongue and throat.
  Based on this data, we can now pinpoint exactly what words people want to say. The researchers believe they will do better with more electrodes to listen to more neurons and greater bandwidth.
  Angela said: “We don’t need more electrodes to control the cursor, but for speech (communication) the data rate requirements of the method we are using are very high. It is clear that we need to increase the number of channels to make these systems viable. With a thousand electrodes, it’s as good as a cell phone transcribing your speech. So, in this case, yes, your information processing rate is increased by a factor of 10 to 100.” In
  short, when it comes to Experts are skeptical that increased bandwidth is important when it comes to improving communication among people without disabilities. The brain’s thinking speed is a bottleneck. But when it comes to restoring lost function, it’s really important, and we need a lot of neurons and data to get patients back to a basic communication speed of 40 bits per second.

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