Brains and computers


Elon Musk enters the world of brain-computer interfaces


EVER since ENIAC, the first computer that could be operated by a single person, began flashing its ring counters in 1946,human beings and calculating machines have been on a steady march towards tighter integration. Computers entered homes in the 1980s, then migrated onto laps, into pockets and around wrists. In the laboratory, computation has found its way ontomolars【1】and into eyeballs. The logical conclusion of all this is that computers will, one day, enter the brain.

【1】molar:[ˈmoʊlər]磨牙;臼齿 Yourmolarsare the large, flat teeth towards the back of your mouth that you use for chewing food.

This, at least, is the bet behind a company called Neuralink, just started by Elon Musk, a serial technological entrepreneur.Information about Neuralink is sparse, but trademark filings state that it will make invasive devices for treating or diagnosingneurological[ˌnʊrəˈlɑːdʒɪkl]ailments【2】. Mr Musk clearly has bigger plans, though. He has often tweeted cryptic messages referring to “neural lace”, a science-fictional concept invented by Iain M. Banks, a novelist, that is, in essence, a machine interface woven into the brain.

【2】ailment:[ˈeɪlmənt]疾病;病痛;(尤指)微恙 Anailmentis an illness, especially one that is not very serious.

The pharmacist can assist you with the treatment of common ailments.


Although devices that can read and write data to and from the brain as easily as they would to and from a computer remain firmly in the realm of imagination, that has notstoppedneuroscientists(and, of course, Mr Musk)from indulging in some speculation.Theodore Berger of the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, has proposed that brain implants might be used to store andretrieve【3】memories. Dr Berger’sprosthesis【4】would be intended to help those whose brains cannot form long-term memories because they are damaged. But if the idea worked, there seems little reason why those without damage should not and would not want something similar. Mr Musk himself, more ambitiously still, imagines an implant that would let the wearer tap directly into the internet, and all of the computational power available there.

【3】retrieve:使重新回到,挽回(某种局面) If you manage toretrievea situation, you succeed in bringing it back into a more acceptable state.

He is the one man who could retrieve that situation.


【4】 prosthesis:[prɑːsˈθiːsɪs]假体 Aprosthesisis an artificial body part that is used to replace a natural part.

The woman whose leg had been amputated could get a prosthesis and learn to walk on it.


Of minds and melding


Behind this suggestion lies Mr Musk’s argument, made repeatedly, that human beings need to embrace brain implants to stay relevant in a world which, he believes, will soon be dominated by artificial intelligence.Proposing the artificial augmentation of human intelligence as a response to a boom in artificial intelligence mayseem a bit much.But Mr Musk’s new company is not alone. A firm called Kernel is following a similar path.


To start with, Kernel’s engineers hope to build devices for the treatment of neurological conditions such asstrokes and Alzheimer’s disease. Ultimately, however, they want to create cognition-enhancing implants that anyone might care to buy. Kernel was foundedin October 2016 by Bryan Johnson, an entrepreneur who, like Mr Musk, got rich by processing payments online (PayPal, which Mr Musk helped found, bought Braintree, Mr Johnson’s company, in 2013). Mr Johnson put $100m of his own money into Kernel, stating that “unlocking our brain is the most significant and consequential opportunity in history.”

In some ways,Mr Johnson and Mr Musk are merelythe new boysin what is quite an old field.The first brain implants,carried out in the 1970s, wereprosthetic visual systems, though they did not work well.Cochlear【5】implants, to restore hearing, have done much better. Hundreds of thousands of people now have them—though, strictly speaking, they talk to auditory nerves rather than to the brain directly, which simplifies the task. For some people, the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease can be kept in check by electrodes the diameter of a strand ofspaghetti【6】inserted deep into the brain. And one of the latest ideas in the field is to read and interpret brain activity, in order to restore movement to the limbs of the paralysed.

【5】Cochlear:[ˈkoʊkliə]耳蜗 Thecochleais the spiral-shaped part of the inner ear.

【6】spaghetti:[spəˈɡeti]意大利式细面条Spaghettiis a type of pasta. It looks like long pieces of string and is usually served with a sauce.

In one important way, however, Kernel and Neuralink are different from previous efforts. Though aimed initially at medical applications, they also explicitlynod tthe possible non-medical uses of this kind of implant technology. In February Mr Musk said that he thought“meaningful” interfaces between the brain and computation were five years away.The creation of Neuralink suggests that he, like Mr Johnson, isputting his money where his mouth is.

Most neuroscientists would, it must be acknowledged,regard all this as heroically optimistic.In a review of the field, published in January in Nature Reviews Materials, Polina Anikeeva and her colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) wrote that, althoughMoore’s Lawand theminiaturisation【7】of electronics have brought devices down to a size where their insertion into the brain can be considered, big challenges lie ahead.

必须得承认,多数神经科学家都会认为这些计划乐观中却也透着逞强。在发表于1月《自然综述:材料》(Nature Reviews Materials)上的一篇对该领域的综述中,麻省理工学院的波琳娜·安尼基娃(Polina Anikeeva)及其同事写道,虽然摩尔定律及电子元件的微型化已使各种装置缩小到可以考虑将之置入大脑的程度,但未来仍存在着重大挑战。

【7】miniaturis/ze:[ˈmɪnətʃəraɪz]使小型化;使微型化 If youminiaturizesomething such as a machine, you produce a very small version of it.


...increasing miniaturization in the computer industry.


The brain’s complexity, and researchers’present lack of understanding of how that organ’s component cells work together to do what they do, makes designing interfaces between brain and machine hard. But,even were it simple in principle, the rigid, silicon-based tools of modern computing do notmesh【8】easily with thesquishy【9】soft-tissue of biology.Implants often generate scars around themselves. And the surgery needed to put them in place carries risks of its own.


【8】mesh:(使)相匹配;(使)相互协调;(使)吻合 If two things or ideasmeshorare meshed, they go together well or fit together closely.

Their senses of humor meshed perfectly...


【9】squishy:[ˈskwɪʃi]松软的 Something that issquishyis soft and easy to squash.

There may, though, be alternative approaches. One such is being tested by a group at Florida International University, in Miami, led by Sakhrat Khizroev. Dr Khizroev and his team usemagnetoelectric{磁电粒子}particles so tiny that they can interact with the electric field generated by an individual nerve cell. The team inject these particles,tens of billionsat a time, into a vein in a rat’s tail, then drag them into the animal’s brain using magnets. Each particle produces anelectric fieldwhen stimulated by an externalmagnetic field. This may, in principle, permit are searcher to use such a particle to influence the electrical states of nearby nerve cells—and thus, in essence, reprogram them. How that would be done in practice,though, isobscure.

Another approach, being pioneered by JoseCarmena of the University of California, Berkeley, and his colleagues, uses devices the size of a grain of rice to convertultrasonic energybeamed【10】towards them into electricity that can stimulate nerve or muscle cells.Ultrasoundtravels through the body, so can power and control such devices without wires.

【10】 beam:(通过电子设备)发送,发射 If somethingbeamsradio signals or television pictures or theyare beamedsomewhere, they are sent there by means of electronic equipment.

The live satellite broadcast was beamed into homes across America.


Both Dr Khizroev’s technique and DrCarmena’s are less invasive than the current standard brain interface, a patch of needle like electrodes known as aUtah arraythat is plugged into the brain’s surface. This is far tooblunt【11】an instrument to send any but the crudest signals into a brain. But, regardless of the precise approach taken to hardware, another problem the field faces is that no one understands the mechanism behind the natural equivalent of software—the way the brain encodes information. Such interfacesas do existhave to be trained, rather than instructed what to do. Instruction would be possibleonly ifbrain signals were properly understood.

齐兹洛夫和卡梅纳所采用技术的创伤都小于目前常见的那种脑界面,即一个布满针状电极的小块,名为犹他电极阵列(Utah array),使用时插入大脑表层。它只能向大脑发送最粗糙的信号,远不是一个有效的方法。不过,不管硬件采取的是何种方法,该领域都还面临着另外一个问题:没有人了解软件的天然对等物的工作机制,即大脑是如何进行信息编码的。现有的这种接口只能接受训练,而不能遵循指令行事。只有在大脑信号能被正确理解的情况下才能有效地发布指令。

【11】blunt:直率的;不客气的;直言不讳的 If you areblunt, you say exactly what you think without trying to be polite.

She is blunt about her personal life...


物体)钝的,不锋利的,不尖的 Abluntobject has a rounded or flat end rather than a sharp one.

使(情感、感觉、需求)减弱;使迟钝 If somethingbluntsan emotion, a feeling or a need, it weakens it.

Our appetite was blunted by the beer.


It is not yet clear which technological routes Mr Musk’s and Mr Johnson’s commercial efforts will take, though Kernel recently bought Kendall Research Systems,a spin-off from MITthat builds devices which use light, rather than electricity, to stimulate the brain. But the two firms’ shared underlying premise—that medical purposes might lead to more consumer-orientated applications—does seem a sensible way to do things.

目前尚不清楚马斯克和约翰逊的商业运作会采用何种技术路线,不过Kernel最近收购了从麻省理工学院剥离出来的Kendall Research Systems。该公司制造的装置利用光而不是电来刺激大脑。但这两家公司共同的假设——医疗上的用途也许会指向以消费者为导向的应用——似乎确实是一个明智的行事方法。



As for Mr Musk himself, Neuralink brings to five the number of ambitious technology companies in which he is involved. The others are Tesla (electric cars, batteries and solar power), which in late March attracted an investment from Tencent, a Chinese tech giant; SpaceX(rocketry); the Boring Company (tunnelling); and Hyperloop (vacuum trains). It is hard todiscern【12】the connections between these ideas. But, in Mr Musk’s mind,they are presumably alreadylacedtogether.

对马斯克本人而言,有了Neuralink,与他有关的雄心勃勃的科技公司数量就变成了五个。其他四个分别是:生产电动汽车、电池及太阳能的特斯拉,3月底刚吸引了中国科技巨头腾讯的投资;从事火箭研究的SpaceX;专事挖掘隧道的Boring Company;采用悬浮真空列车的超回路列车(Hyperloop)。要识别这些创意之间的关联很难,不过,在马斯克的脑袋里,它们想必已经交织在一起了。

【12】discern:觉察出;知道;了解;辨明 If you can discern something, you are aware of it and know what it is.

It was hard to discern why this was happening.


依稀看出;分辨出 If you candiscernsomething, you can just see it, but not clearly.

Below the bridge we could just discern a narrow, weedy ditch.









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