Sci Fi: Ender’s Game and Neuralink
Ender's Game introduces the concept of a monitor - a device attached to a person's neck that downloads all their thoughts and memories. Sounds a lot like Elon Musk's new project, Neuralink.March 3, 2021 | 3 minute read
When Ender is a young boy attending “normal” school on Earth, a device called a monitor is attached to his spine at the base of his neck. Because it’s reading electrical signals as they course through Ender’s nervous system, the monitor is able to record everything that Ender senses - feels, sees, smells - even subconsciously.
Ender is a genius. He’s also a third: a third sibling in a world where families are legally only allowed to have two. Ender’s parents receive special permission to have an extra child because Ender’s siblings showed great promise in the world’s military feeder school on Earth, but ultimately failed to enter battle school, a military school in outer space where children are divided into platoons and pitched against each other in zero-gravity games of war.
Before he is accepted in to battle school (at 8 years old) Ender is put through normal public school on Earth where every move he makes is watched, saved, and replayed by the military through the monitor plugged in to Ender’s spine.
While this technology doesn’t exist yet, this is the long-term vision of Neuralink, a company founded by Elon Musk. The Neuralink is a small device implanted in the skull that with sensors that connect to the brain and read the electrical signals it gives off. These signals are then sent wirelessly to external hardware (like an iPhone) where they can be processed.
In the not-so-distant future, the device is intended as a shunt for people with debilitative spinal injuries. Multiple Neuralink devices could be implanted in the skull to read signals from the patient’s brain. These electrical signals would then be transmitted to a secondary device that would “reproduce” these signals below the injury, making motor control with the brain possible again.
That, on its own, sounds like science fiction. But of course, it gets crazier.
The Future of Neuralink
The Link is a starting point for a new kind of brain interface … This technology has the potential to treat a wide range of neurological disorders, to restore sensory and movement function, and eventually to expand how we interact with each other, with the world, and with ourselves.
The long-term vision is for Neuralink to be a brain-computer interface, empowering humans to connect directly to compute-powered devices.
Why might that be useful? Computers can process information very quickly and they will only get faster and more powerful over time. When it comes to leveraging all this incredible compute power, we (the humans) are the bottleneck. Not our brains, but our bodies.
Think of something as simple as sending and receiving text messages. Your brain can recognize a notification as a text message almost instantly. Your then have to fumble through unlocking your phone, navigating to your messages, reading the message, and crafting a response. The parts of this process where your brain is processing information are practically instant. The slow parts are your brain maneuvering your body to control a clumsy interface for getting what you want from the computer.
The premise of Neuralink is effectively the same as the Monitor attached to Ender’s neck. But the vision is significantly more grand. This is something we commonly see in Sci Fi - the premise of some technology that seems completely implausible at the time of writing becomes true in spirit, but not quite in execution.
Ender’s monitor plugs into his spine and protrudes from the back of his neck. Existing devices do this and the external part of the device causes issues. And not just infection. In studies conducted with mice, the external piece of the brain monitor is small in absolute terms, but fairly large in comparison to the mouse it’s attached to. If the mouse bumps the monitor too hard on something it dies, making the practicality of the device … limited.
The monitor plays a fairly small role in Ender’s Game and only really appears in the first few chapters. For a novel entirely dedicated to the premise of embedded brain chips and what society might look like if this every becomes common, you should check out Feed by M.T. Anderson.