Elon Musk wants his brain chip company Neuralink to begin human trials within the next six months.
During a recent ‘show and tell’ event, the billionaire revealed that the company would attempt to use the implants to allow blind people to see via cameras, help individuals with spinal injuries communicate, and possibly even regain the use of their bodies.
A Neuralink implant is a wireless chip-based system housed in an enclosure roughly the size of a quarter that is designed to be implanted in the skull, where it interfaces directly with the human brain via a series of minuscule wires. Each of these wires — which are the width of just a few red blood cells — carries a complement of 16 electrodes and is capable of both tracking signals sent from the brain, and stimulating them.
In order to be implanted, a surgeon must delicately cut away an outer layer of skin and flesh, before drilling out a section of the patient’s skull, and finally removing a layer of tough connective tissue — thus exposing the brain beneath.
A specially designed robot — which has been imaginatively named R1 — then gets to work individually inserting the ultra-thin electrode-bearing threads into precisely targeted sections of the brain. In a live demonstration that took place during the show and tell, it took the R1 robot just 20 minutes to install the implant’s 64 threads into a model brain.
The current ‘N1’ device has now been miniaturized to the extent that it matches the thickness of the skull layer removed to implant the chip. This allows the tech to occupy the hole where the bone once was, and be concealed under the skin.
According to Musk, putting a Neurolink interface in your head would be akin to replacing a piece of your skull with a smartwatch. Not the best sales pitch I’ve ever heard.
Livestream link for today’s event: https://t.co/Q9VFL9Fxav
See you at 6 pm PT
— Neuralink (@neuralink) November 30, 2022
While this is a daunting prospect, the possible future benefits of opting into such a device could be profound. Musk’s intent is to create a whole-brain interface that could be used medically to dramatically improve the lives of people with disabilities, and that in the long term could allow anyone to interact with technology using just the implant and the power of their minds.
The company has already tested its implant on a number of pigs and macaques. In 2021 Neuralink revealed that it had managed to train a monkey implanted with the device to play the arcade game Pong using nothing but the signals from its brain.
The monkey — named Pager — was first taught to play and understand the game using a regular joystick. During this process, the implant recorded Pager’s brain signals and identified which ones were being used to control the joystick, and therefore move the paddle.
The joystick was then removed, and the Macaque was able to successfully direct the paddle with its thoughts by communicating through the implanted Neuralink technology.
Since teaching a monkey how to play Pong, Neuralink has been busy testing and upgrading the technology in anticipation of a transition to human trials. According to Musk, the company has now submitted most of the relevant paperwork needed for such experiments to the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is responsible for ensuring the safety and efficacy of human testing.
In this week’s show and tell presentation, the controversial entrepreneur reiterated his sweeping vision for the Neuralink implants and showcased the advancements that had been made in their testing and development.
Musk also revealed his timeline for human testing, stating that “In about six months we should be able to have our first Neuralink in a human.” He went on to explain that Neuralink’s animal testing is geared towards being “confirmatory, not exploratory”, and that stringent benchtop testing is undertaken before implanting an animal subject.
Animal rights groups had previously condemned the company’s treatment of its laboratory animals. As reported by CNN, a US non-profit group — The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine — called for an investigation into the company’s practices, citing “egregious violations of the Animal Welfare Act related to the treatment of monkeys used in invasive brain experiments.”
“We are confident that someone who has basically no other interface with the outside world would be able to control their phone better than someone who has working hands.”
The company is now working with a troupe of six monkeys and has already upgraded the chip embedded in the macaque Pager’s skull. In the time since the Pong experiments, the monkeys have been encouraged to complete a series of tasks designed to test the interface, with the new hardware significantly increasing the speed at which they were able to interact with the technology using a mind-controlled curser.
One such test was showcased during the event, in which a monkey commanded a curser to move to a highlighted key on a virtual keyboard in order to write the words ‘welcome to show and tell’.
The display was designed to showcase the potential benefits that the technology could bring by allowing disabled individuals to communicate quickly using a mouse cursor or phone, without the need to interact with a physical device.
“We are confident that someone who has basically no other interface with the outside world would be able to control their phone better than someone who has working hands,” explained Musk.
The company is also working to futureproof the Neuralink implant by making it possible for surgeons to easily upgrade the hardware when a newer model becomes available. However, there are currently significant challenges that must be overcome — many of which are the result of our bodies’ impressive healing capabilities — if this is to be the case.
“Our goal will be to turn the lights on for someone who has spent decades living in the dark.”
Musk has already laid out two ambitious short to medium-term goals for when the FDA approves the testing of Neuralink implants in humans. The first is to restore a form of vision to patients who suffer from blindness.
“Even if someone has never had vision ever, like they were born blind, we believe we can still restore vision,” said Musk. “The visual part of the cortex is still there.”
This is theoretically possible due to the implant’s capacity to stimulate the brain, explains visual neuroscientist Dan Adams, a principle investigator at Neurolink.
If attached to the visual cortex, the stimulation from the wires could be used to bypass the human eye and form an image directly in the brain. This technique could also be scaleable, with a higher number of electrodes — and therefore stimuli — allowing for higher resolution images to be projected into the brain.
The scientists envision a future where data from a camera could be streamed to the implant, which in turn would stimulate the correct cells in the visual cortex to create a simplified version of the image in a person’s brain.
“Our goal will be to turn the lights on for someone who has spent decades living in the dark,” explained Adams.
Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty Expansion Screenshots
Neuralink’s other primary goal is to help people with paralysis from spinal cord injuries communicate using technology.
“We are confident that there are no physical limitations to enabling full body functionality.”
Even more ambitiously, the company is hoping to “bridge the connection,” between the brain and the body, and transmit signals from the motor cortex to Neuralink devices in the spinal cord, which could then stimulate muscular movement.
Scientists have already tested this technique by implanting devices in the brain and spinal cord of a pig and were able to successfully manipulate the movement of one of its legs.
“We are confident that there are no physical limitations to enabling full body functionality,” explained Musk. “As miraculous as it may sound, we’re confident that it is possible to restore full body functionality to someone who has a severed spinal cord.”
Back in January, Neuralink posted a job opening on its website for a clinical trial director to help “build the team responsible for enabling Neuralink’s clinical research activities”, and so It is of little surprise that Musk is aiming to push forward with human trials.
However, it is worth noting that the billionaire is well known for laying down overtly ambitious timelines for his many tech, infrastructure, and automotive projects, and considering the nature of the trials, it will be interesting to see if, and how quickly the FDA grants its approval to proceed to human testing.
Beyond its potential for improving the lives of people with disabilities, Musk also explained what he views to be the necessity of the device for the future of the human race. More specifically, he is concerned about our potential to keep up with advanced AI intelligence that may arise in the coming decades.
“Even in a benign scenario where the AI is very benevolent, then how do we even go along for the ride,” asked Musk. “The biggest limitation in going along for the ride and aligning AI is I think […] how quickly you can interact with the computer.”
He hopes that Neurolink will be a stepping stone toward bridging the AI-human intelligence gap. As always the future seems to be coming at us fast in a terrifying blend of dystopian optimism.
Stick with IGN to stay up to date with the biggest updates from around the scientific world.
Anthony is a freelance contributor covering science and video gaming news for IGN. He has over eight years experience of covering breaking developments in multiple scientific fields and absolutely no time for your shenanigans. Follow him on Twitter @BeardConGamer
Image Credit: Getty Images