With a device surgically implanted into the skull of a pig named Gertrude, Elon Musk demonstrated his startup Neuralink’s technology to build a digital link between brains and computers. A wireless link from the Neuralink computing device showed the pig’s brain activity as it snuffled around a pen on stage Friday night.
The demonstration shows the technology to be significantly closer to delivering on Musk’s radical ambitions than during a 2019 product debut, when Neuralink only showed photos of a rat with a Neuralink connected via a USB-C port. It’s still far from reality, but Musk said the US Food and Drug Administration in July granted approval for “breakthrough device” testing.
Musk also showed a second-generation implant that’s more compact and fits into a small cavity hollowed out of the skull. Tiny electrode “threads” penetrate the outer surface of the brain, detecting an electrical impulse from nerve cells that shows the brain is at work. In line with Neuralink’s longer-term plans, the threads are designed to communicate back, with computer-generated signals of their own.
“It’s like a Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires,” Musk said of the device.
It communicates with brain cells with 1,024 thin electrodes that penetrate the outer layer of the brain. Then there’s a Bluetooth link to an outside computing device, though the company is looking at other radio technology it can use to dramatically increase the number of data links.
Though the pig demonstration showed neural activity being broadcast wirelessly to a computer, it didn’t reveal any of Neuralink’s long-term ambitions, like a computer usefully communicating back to a brain or a computer understanding what the spikes of neural activity actually mean.
Medical start, sci-fi finish for Neuralink
Neuralink has a medical focus to start, like helping people deal with brain and spinal cord injuries or congenital defects. The technology could, for example, help paraplegics who’ve lost the ability to move or sense because of spinal cord injury, and the first human uses will aim to improve conditions like paraplegia or tetraplegia.
“If you can sense what people want to do with their limbs, you can do a second implant where the spinal injury occurred and create a neural shunt,” Musk said. “I’m confident in the long term it’ll be possible to restore somebody’s full body motion.”
But Musk’s vision is far more radical, including ideas like “conceptual telepathy,” where two people can communicate electronically by thinking at each other instead of writing or speaking. The long-term goal is to head off a future where artificial intelligence vastly smarter than humans exterminates us.
Musk envisions people using Neuralink to connect to their own digital AI incarnations so “the future is controlled by the combined will of the people of Earth,” Musk said. “It’s going to be important from an existential threat perspective to achieve a good AI symbiosis.”
Back up and restore your memories
“The future is going to be weird,” Musk said, discussing sci-fi uses of Neuralink. “In the future you will be able to save and replay memories,” he said. “You could basically store your memories as a backup and restore the memories. You could potentially download them into a new body or into a robot body.”
He’s aware some people are going to see trouble in Neuralink, too. “This is increasingly sounding like a Black Mirror episode,” Musk said, referring to the dystopian TV series.
Musk also discussed seeing in infrared, ultraviolet or X-ray using digital camera data. “Over time we could give somebody super vision,” Musk said.
Neuralink is building a robotic installer that ultimately is designed to handle the full surgical installation process. That includes opening up the scalp, removing a portion of the skull, inserting the hundreds of “thread” electrodes along with an accompanying computer chip, then closing the incision. The installer is designed to dodge blood vessels to avoid bleeding, Musk said.
As with Fitbit, Apple Watch and other wearable technology, Musk sees a health benefit for Neuralink besides direct brain-computer communications. Neuralink chips can measure temperature, pressure and movement, data that could warn you about a heart attack or stroke, Musk said.
Computers need power, and Neuralink’s in-skull chip gets it by charging wirelessly through the skin, Musk said.
Neuralink’s previous work
Since the Neuralink launch event last year, Musk and Neuralink have published one scientific paper, in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, in October. The paper described the development of their robotic device, an arm able to delicately insert hundreds of thin threads, about a tenth of the width of a human hair, into the brain. It’s sometimes dubbed the “sewing machine” and is capable of inserting around six threads per minute, each one composed of flexible plastics and featuring 192 electrodes.
The company’s early research focused on interfacing with the rodent brain. In the October paper, Musk and Neuralink detailed two Neuralink systems, A and B, tested on rats. The former can insert more than 1,500 electrodes and the latter, 3,000. The paper describes a free-moving rat attached to system B, with a USB-C slot sticking out of its head, but there’s no clear indication of Neuralink having settled on the best place for electrodes.
In the paper, Musk and Neuralink acknowledge that “significant technological challenges must be addressed before a high-bandwidth device is suitable for clinical application.”
The rodent work is impressive, but what caught people’s attention last year was Musk’s assertion that a monkey had been “able to control a computer with his brain.” No evidence was provided in the JMIR paper to support that assertion, and Musk didn’t mention it Friday.
On Tuesday, medical industry news site Stat detailed turmoil at Neuralink, with five former employees coming forward to describe “a chaotic internal culture” and describing it as a “pressure cooker” environment.
The report also detailed accelerated timelines, noting that the push to move the technology forward resulted in failures in animal experiments. One former employee said Neuralink moved from rodent experiments into primates faster than expected in medical science.
Neuralink responded to Stat’s assertions in the article, suggesting some of them were “either partially or completely false.”
Holes in your skull? Really?
Neuralink’s success will hinge on convincing us to install chips in our brains and tamper with the very nerve impulses that make us who we are. That’s a hard sell — particularly in view of Neuralink competitors who prefer noninvasive headsets.
“There’s a segment of people who are enthusiastic about invasive BMI,” including members of the Transhumanist movement, Max Newlon, CEO of BrainCo, said, referring to brain-machine interface. “Noninvasive BMI technology could be a bridge to the future that people will accept today.”
“The safety and health risks of invasive implants are significant,” added Sid Kouider, founder and CEO of NextMind, a Neuralink competitor. Problems include infection, inflammation and follow-up surgery to adjust electrode positioning, he said. He credits Neuralink for stimulating interest in neural interfaces, though.
In addition to leading Neuralink, Musk is chief executive of Tesla, which is ramping up a global electric vehicle business; SpaceX, which is launching spacecraft and piloting the launch rockets back to Earth for reuse; and the Boring Company, which aims to route vehicle traffic through tunnels.
Musk is stretched thin, but he’s also delivered on key promises like producing compelling electric vehicles and lowering satellite launch costs. Musk has a knack for picking business problems that are difficult but attainable. To succeed, though, Neuralink will have to convince scientists and doctors along with the rest of us.