Neuralink Wants to Implant Human Brain Chips Within a Year

Tesla CEO Elon Musk released a video showing how his company Neuralink – a brain-computer-interface company – had advanced its technology to the point that the chip could allow a monkey to play video games with its mind.


Neuralink could transition from operating on monkeys to human trials within the year, if the startup meets a previous prediction from Musk. In February, he said the company planned to launch human trials by the end of the year after first mentioning his work with the monkey implants.

At the time, the CEO gave the timeline in response to another user’s request to join human trials for the product, which is designed to implant artificial intelligence into human brains as well as potentially cure neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Musk has made similar statements in the past about his project, which was launched in 2016. He said in 2019 that it would be testing on humans by the end of 2020.

There has been a recent flurry of information on the project. Prior to the recent video release on Twitter, Musk had made an appearance on the social media site, Clubhouse, and provided some additional updates on Neuralink back in February.

During his Clubhouse visit, Musk detailed how the company had implanted the chip in the monkey’s brain and talked about how it could play video games using only its mind.


World’s Smallest Atom-Memory Unit Created

Faster, smaller, smarter and more energy-efficient chips for everything from consumer electronics to big data to brain-inspired computing could soon be on the way after engineers at The University of Texas at Austin created the smallest memory device yet. And in the process, they figured out the physics dynamic that unlocks dense memory storage capabilities for these tiny devices.

The research published recently in Nature Nanotechnology builds on a discovery from two years ago, when the researchers created what was then the thinnest memory storage device. In this new work, the researchers reduced the size even further, shrinking the cross section area down to just a single square nanometer. Getting a handle on the physics that pack dense memory storage capability into these devices enabled the ability to make them much smaller. Defects, or holes in the material, provide the key to unlocking the high-density memory storage capability.

When a single additional metal atom goes into that nanoscale hole and fills it, it confers some of its conductivity into the material, and this leads to a change or memory effect,” said Deji Akinwande, professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Though they used molybdenum disulfide – also known as MoS2 – as the primary nanomaterial in their study, the researchers think the discovery could apply to hundreds of related atomically thin materials.

The race to make smaller chips and components is all about power and convenience. With smaller processors, you can make more compact computers and phones. But shrinking down chips also decreases their energy demands and increases capacity, which means faster, smarter devices that take less power to operate.

The results obtained in this work pave the way for developing future generation applications that are of interest to the Department of Defense, such as ultra-dense storage, neuromorphic computing systems, radio-frequency communication systems and more,” said Pani Varanasi, program manager for the U.S. Army Research Office, which funded the research.

The original device – dubbed “atomristor” by the research team – was at the time the thinnest memory storage device ever recorded, with a single atomic layer of thickness. But shrinking a memory device is not just about making it thinner but also building it with a smaller cross-sectional area. “The scientific holy grail for scaling is going down to a level where a single atom controls the memory function, and this is what we accomplished in the new study,” Akinwande said.


Photonic Chips

Emitting light from silicon has been the ‘Holy Grail’ in the microelectronics industry for decades. Solving this puzzle would revolutionize computing, as chips will become faster than ever. Researchers from Eindhoven University of Technology  (TU-e) now succeeded: they have developed an alloy with silicon that can emit light. The team will now start creating a silicon laser to be integrated into current chips.

Every year we use and produce significantly more data. But our current technology, based on electronic chips, is reaching its ceiling. The limiting factor is heat, resulting from the resistance that the electrons experience when traveling through the copper lines connecting the many transistors on a chip. If we want to continue transferring more and more data every year, we need a new technique that does not produce heat. Bring in photonics, which uses photons (light particles) to transfer data. In contrast to electrons, photons do not experience resistance. As they have no mass or charge, they will scatter less within the material they travel through, and therefore no heat is produced. The energy consumption will therefore be reduced. Moreover, by replacing electrical communication within a chip by optical communication, the speed of on-chip and chip-to-chip communication can be increased by a factor 1000. Data centers would benefit most, with faster data transfer and less energy usage for their cooling system. But these photonic chips will also bring new applications within reach. Think of laser-based radar for self-driving cars and chemical sensors for medical diagnosis or for measuring air and food quality.

To use light in chips, you will need a light source; an integrated laser. The main semiconductor material that computer chips are made of is silicon. But bulk silicon is extremely inefficient at emitting light, and so was long thought to play no role in photonics. Thus, scientists turned to more complex semiconductors, such as gallium arsenide and indium phosphide. These are good at emitting light but are more expensive than silicon and are hard to integrate into existing silicon microchips.

To create a silicon compatible laser, scientists needed to produce a form of silicon that can emit light. That’s exactly what researchers from Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) now succeeded in. Together with researchers from the universities of Jena, Linz and Munich, they combined silicon and germanium in a hexagonal structure that is able to emit light. A breakthrough after 50 years of work.

Nanowires with hexagonal silicon-germanium shells

The crux is in the nature of the so-called band gap of a semiconductor,” says lead researcher Erik Bakkers from TU/e. “If an electron ‘drops’ from the conduction band to the valence band, a semiconductor emits a photon: light.” But if the conduction band and valence band are displaced with respect to each other, which is called an indirect band gap, no photons can be emitted – as is the case in silicon. “A 50-year old theory showed however that silicon, alloyed with germanium, shaped in a hexagonal structure does have a direct band gap, and therefore potentially could emit light,” explains Bakkers.

Shaping silicon in a hexagonal structure, however, is not easy. As Bakkers and his team master the technique of growing nanowires, they were able to create hexagonal silicon in 2015. They realized pure hexagonal silicon by first growing nanowires made from another material, with a hexagonal crystal structure. Then they grew a silicon-germanium shell on this template. Elham Fadaly, shared first author of the study: “We were able to do this such that the silicon atoms are built on the hexagonal template, and by this forced the silicon atoms to grow in the hexagonal structure.” But they could not yet make them to emit light, until now. Bakkers team managed to increase the quality of the hexagonal silicon-germanium shells by reducing the number of impurities and crystal defects. When exciting the nanowire with a laser, they could measure the efficiency of the new material. Alain Dijkstra, also shared first author of the study and responsible for measuring the light emission: “Our experiments showed that the material has the right structure, and that it is free of defects. It emits light very efficiently.”

The findings have been published in the journal Nature.