There’s been a lot of hype coming out of Silicon
Valley about technology that can meld the human brain with machines. But how
will this help society, and which companies are leading the charge?

Elon Musk, chief executive of Tesla and SpaceX, made waves in
March when he announced his latest venture, Neuralink, which would design what are called
brain-computer interfaces. Initially, BCIs would be used for medical research,
but the ultimate goal would be to prevent humans from becoming obsolete by
enabling people to merge with artificial intelligence.

Musk is not the only one who’s trying to bring
humans closer to machines. Here are five organizations working hard on hacking
the brain. [Super-Intelligent Machines: 7 Robotic Futures]

Neuralink

According
to Musk, the main barrier to human-machine co­operation is communication
bandwidth.

Because
using a touch screen or a keyboard is a slow way to communicate with a
computer, Musk’s new venture aims to create a “high-bandwidth” link between the
brain and machines.

What that system would look like is not entirely clear. Words
such as “neural lace” and “neural dust” have been
bandied about, but all that has really been revealed is a business model.
Neuralink has been registered as a medical research company, and Musk said the
firm will produce a product to help people with severe brain injuries within
four years.

This
will lay the groundwork for developing BCIs for healthy people, enabling them
to communicate by “consensual telepathy,” possibly within five years, Musk
said. Some scientists, particularly those in neuroscience, are skeptical of Musk’s ambitious plans.

Facebook

Just a few weeks after Musk launched Neuralink, Facebook
announced that it was working on a way to let people “type” by thought alone.

The
goal is to build a device that would allow people to compose up to 100 words
per minute, according to Regina Dugan, head of Facebook’s Building 8 research
group.

Dugan also suggested that the device could work as a “brain
mouse” for augmented reality, or AR, removing the need for hand movements to
control cursors, the Verge reported.

Facebook
has also been light on the details. The company has said it does not think
implants are feasible in the long term, so it’s focusing on developing some
kind of cap that could track brain activity noninvasively, probably by using
optical imaging.

In
the meantime, Facebook said that, within two years, it plans to create a
prototype implant.

Kernel

Musk
wasn’t the first wealthy entrepreneur to dive into theneurotechnology space.
Last August, Bryan Johnson, founder of the online payments company Braintree,
invested $100 million in a start-up called Kernel.

The
company’s initial goal was to develop a chip that could record memories and
redeliver them to the brain, based on research by Theodore Berger, a biomedical
engineer and neuroscientist at the University of Southern California.

Six months later, Berger and Braintree parted ways because of
the long time required to realize Berger’s vision, reported MIT Technology Review, and the
company is now focusing on technology similar to Neuralink.

Kernel
plans to build a flexible platform for recording and stimulating neurons, with
the goal of treating diseases such as depression and Alzheimer’s. But like
Musk, Johnson is not afraid to discuss the prospect of using the technology to
augment human abilities and merge with machines.

“There’s
this huge potential to co-evolve with our technology,” Johnson told CNBC.

Emotiv

Unlike
some other companies in this burgeoning industry, Emotiv actually makes
products: electroencephalography headsets that record brain activity
noninvasively.

The
technology is of lower fidelity than the neural implants that companies such as
Neuralink are considering, but it is more established. The company has a
research-grade device, called EPOC+, which sells for $799. But it also produces
a consumer-oriented headset, Insight, which retails for $299.

Emotiv
produces software that allows users to visualize their brain activity in 3-D;
measure their brain fitness; and even control drones, robots and video games,
reported the Daily Dot. The company was selected to be part of the Disney Accelerator
program
 in 2015, with the aim of creating a “wearable [device] for the brain.

DARPA

The U.S. military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency
announced a $60 million program last year to develop an implantable
neural interface
 in collaboration with a consortium of private
companies.

The
project, part of former president Barack Obama’s BRAIN Initiative, is
ambitious. DARPA wants a device that can record 1 million neurons
simultaneously and stimulate at least 100,000 neurons in the brain. DARPA also
wants the device to be wireless, the size of a nickel and ready in four years,
which is an incredibly aggressive deadline, according to MIT Technology Review.






















































Potential applications include compensating for sight or hearing
problems (because the device could feed digital auditory or visual information
directly into the brain). The exact technological approach is unclear at this
stage, but the project has the heft of some major engineering giants, such as
Qualcomm, behind it, Quartz reported.

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