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This article is an installment of The Future Explored, a weekly guide to world-changing technology. You can get stories like this one straight to your inbox every Thursday morning by subscribing here.

Implanted brain-chips will connect our brains directly to computers, enhancing our intelligence so we can compete with the likes of A.I., claims Elon Musk. The SpaceX and Tesla CEO is also the founder of Neuralink, a neural technology company that is creating the implants.

Why This Matters

Though mind-reading technology is not just around the corner, the science behind it isn't so crazy — in fact, hundreds of thousands of people around the world already have some sort of connection between their brains and a computer.

If we're going to enhance human cognition, technology will have to put complex ideas into the brain.

While these current hookups are mostly for medical purposes — like with deep-brain stimulation for neurodegenerative diseases or prosthetic mobility for amputees — Musk and a growing group of scientists and entrepreneurs aim to take the science a step further by augmenting natural human capabilities.

With such a device, Musk claims a brain could "merge with AI." That could make all your cyborg dreams come true — from directly downloading information from a computer into your brain or being able to control a remote device like your phone, computer, or robot with just your thoughts!

We're certainly not there yet. But in the future, brain implants may bring our sci-fi dreams closer to reality.

Driving the News

On August 28, Musk is scheduled to give an update on Neuralink's progress. The event is expected to show a brain's neurons firing in real-time.

The last public update was in 2019 when he revealed that human trials for the implants could begin as early as this year.

Neuralink's first goal is a bit more practical than mind melding — the objective is to enable people with paralysis of the limbs and torso to type at 40 words per minute. (This would be a vast upgrade from the 10 words per minute that current assistive technology allows).

How it Works

Neuralink's "brain-chips" fall under a larger category of neuroscience technology called brain-computer interfaces (BCIs). This tech creates a direct pathway from a brain to a computer by recording and analyzing brain signals — like an EEG device. Then, those signals get translated into commands that carry out the desired action on a computer. (Or, like with cochlear implants, this process can be reversed — a computer can convert a signal and relay that to the brain's neurons).

Other Types of BCIs

Musk certainly isn't the first or only person working on advancing BCIs. Facebook is working on similar implants that can turn thoughts into speech! Paradromics' brain chip is similar — their goal is to help stroke victims speak — and could enter human trials by 2022. And Kernel, like Neuralink, claims that someday its implant will help improve human cognition using AI. 

If you don't want to undergo brain surgery, there are non-invasive techniques, too. They use electrode patches that are placed externally on the head or even the wrist. While non-invasive systems aren't as accurate as implants — they're obviously much more consumer (and FDA) friendly. 

Hurdles To Competing With AI

Recording brain signals is nothing new, so to really kick the research up a notch, Musk will have to figure out a better way to interpret them. While this is being done on a more simplistic level (determining if you are thinking 'yes' or 'no,' or if you want to move your right or left hand) the technology is nowhere close to interpreting what you're daydreaming about at work or what you want for breakfast.

Another hurdle is that currently, most existing technology can only read these signals — but if we're going to enhance human cognition, it has to be a two-way street. Technology will have to put complex ideas into the brain.

As crazy as it sounds, experimental work is already being done on this front: a study at the University of Washington showed that BCIs allowed three people to collaborate on a Tetris-like game — brain to brain!

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