Neuralink’s ‘Impossible’ Challenge Isn't a Brain Implant. It's a ‘Pied Piper’ and MP3 Players

  • Elon Musk’s company claims to need a compression algorithm with a 200:1 ratio.

  • However, they also need lossless, instantaneous, and super-efficient compression.

  • This type of algorithm would be colossal not just for Neuralink, but for the entire tech industry.

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Neuralink, Elon Musk’s startup, has achieved significant progress recently. Despite encountering some issues, the first human implant seems to have been successful. However, the company now faces a major challenge–one related to MP3 files that no one could’ve ever imagined.

Mission impossible? That’s what it seems like, at least, considering all the requirements. Neuralink has recently announced that it's launching a “compression challenge.” The company is aiming to achieve a compression ratio of 200:1, meaning that for every 200 original bits, only one bit would be used in the compressed file.

Lossless compression. The challenge has more specification. Neuralink states that the compression must occur in real-time (with a latency of less than one millisecond) and consume minimal power (less than 10 mW, including data transmission via radio). The compression algorithm must also result in a lossless compressed file, which means that it must be capable of fully recovering all the original data upon decompression. For more information about this challenge, you can check this GitHub repository.

Many megabytes per second. Neuralink’s N1 implant generates about 200 Mbps of electrode data (1,024 electrodes at 20 kHz with 10-bit resolution) and can transmit at approximately 1 Mbps wirelessly. This means that over 200x compression is needed to handle the data generated by Neuralink.

Baseline data. To help those interested in taking on the challenge, Neuralink has provided a 143 MB ZIP file containing recorded signals from the electrodes of an implanted Neuralink in a monkey. The recording was taken while the primate was playing a video game, something that we already saw in 2021 when Musk showed a video of a monkey playing Pong.

(Apparent) noise all over the place. Some Twitter users have noted that the initial data, when represented on a spectrogram, appears to contain a significant amount of noise. Compressing data with minimal noise is achievable by identifying patterns in the data, as done by Huffman coding, which assigns shorter binary codes to characters that occur more frequently. However, doing so with such a high level of noise seems even more challenging.

A billion-dollar challenge. Other users point to something even more important: Compression at this level that's lossless and manages to achieve this with the current level of of power consumption would be exceptional not only for Neuralink but for countless other applications. For example, large online data storage centers would suddenly have an example of how they could compress all that information with this 200:1 ratio.

But Neuralink doesn’t even mention money. Interestingly, the challenge announcement doesn’t provide details about a potential financial reward. It only indicates that if someone finds the solution, they can contact Neuralink through an email address.

Hello, Pied Piper. In its first season, Richard Hendricks, the main character of the popular Silicon Valley, invented an app called “Pied Piper” that used a spectacular compression algorithm. HBO producers even asked a Stanford professor to create an actual metric—the Weissman score—that would show how good each compression algorithm was.

Compression fever. Indeed, the issue brought up in Silicon Valley is a real problem, and compression algorithms have been striving to make advancements for decades. It’s interesting that since the show aired, every new breakthrough in this area—there’ve been some hackathons launched with this goalhas been celebrated as if it were an iteration of the fictional Pied Piper app, over and over again.

Cheers to MP3 players. Back in the late 1980s, the mathematician Karlheinz Brandenburg, along with Eberhard Zwicker and Dieter Seitzer, was working on high-fidelity music compression. In their research, the team realized that CDs stored data that humans couldn’t even perceive. Together, they developed the MP3 format, which discarded unnecessary data and allowed songs to be compressed at a 12:1 ratio. For every 12 original bits, the MP3 format required only one. The downside, however, is that MP3 is a format with loss, which isn’t suitable for Neuralink.

Image | HBO

Related | The First Problems With the Neuralink Brain Implant Reveal Its Weakness: Its Conductive ‘Wires’

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