via Financial Times

Elon Musk is Silicon Valley’s favourite techno-visionary. New ideas he champions — even when they sound like they come from science fiction — are guaranteed prominent headlines. Other tech investors and entrepreneurs feel compelled to follow.

The hyperloop — a proposed new form of high-speed transport — was one such Musk brainwave. After the Tesla and SpaceX founder actively promoted the technology, it set off a global race to build the system.

But, even for Mr Musk, injecting nanoscale electronics into the brain sounds far-fetched. He has been dreaming of “neural lace”, an artificially created intracranial mesh that would provide a neural link to external computers.

The head of Tesla and SpaceX has talked publicly about this idea for some time. His motivation for trying to turn the technology into reality: if you can’t beat the robots, you might as well join them. Mr Musk worries about AI overtaking human intelligence. Artificially enhancing human brain power is one way to fight back.

To judge by a report in the Wall Street Journal and one of his own tweets this week, he is nearly ready to take the wraps off a company working on this technology. As usual, his backing for a radical new idea is guaranteed to touch off a storm of interest. Technologies that benefit people — and interesting new businesses — may well emerge soon from the field of brain hacking, though the cyborg future Mr Musk has in mind looks a long way off.

Intervening in the brain’s physical functions to try to enhance its capabilities already takes a number of practical forms. The San Francisco Giants baseball team, for instance, has this week signed up to headsets that use what their maker, Halo Neuroscience, calls a “mild electric field” to stimulate areas of the brain thought to influence athletic performance.

Another approach involves the use of nootropics — drugs designed to enhance the brain’s cognitive functions. One of Silicon Valley’s top venture capital firms, Andreessen Horowitz, has put money behind the idea.

Giving the brain an extra jolt of juice — whether chemical or electrical — is one thing. But the Musk idea is much more ambitious. It calls for a proper brain-computer interface that would turn thoughts into digital signals — as well as a way for the computer to send information back again.

At least in some forms, this is an idea that has already been shown to work. Darpa, the defence department research agency, has been interested in the field for years, and in 2016 put up $60m for research into an implantable chip that would connect the human brain to a computer. The first scientific paper describing an experiment in which a monkey controlled a computer cursor with its brain is already 15 years old. Read More