- Neuralink is one of Elon Musk’s strange and futuristic portfolio of companies.
- Neuralink developing neural interface technology – a.k.a. putting microchips into people’s brains.
- The technology could help study and treat neurological disorders.
- Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.
Elon Musk is known for his high-profile companies like Tesla and SpaceX, but the billionaire also has a handful of unusual ventures. One them, he says, he started to one day achieve “symbiosis” between the human brain and artificial intelligence.
Neuralink is Musk’s neural interface technology company. The company is building a device that could be embedded in a person’s brain, where it could both record brain activity and potentially stimulate it. Musk has compared the technology to a “FitBit in your skull.”
While Musk likes to talk up his futuristic vision for the technology, the tech has plenty of near-term potential medical applications.
Here’s everything you need to know about Neuralink:
The wires are equipped with 1,024 electrodes which are able to both monitor brain activity and, theoretically, electrically stimulate the brain. This data is all transmitted wirelessly via the chip to computers where it can be studied by researchers.
Neuralink released a video showcasing the robot in January 2021.
Musk has claimed the machine could make implanting Neuralink’s electrodes as easy as LASIK eye surgery. While this is a bold claim, neuroscientists previously told Insider in 2019 that the machine has some very promising features.
Professor Andrew Hires highlighted a feature, which would automatically adjust the needle to compensate for the movement of a patient’s brain, as the brain moves during surgery along with a person’s breathing and heartbeat.
The robot as it currently stands is eight feet tall, and while Neuralink is developing its underlying technology its design was crafted by Woke Studios.
“In terms of their technology, 1,024 channels is not that impressive these days, but the electronics to relay them wirelessly is state-of-the-art, and the robotic implantation is nice,” said Professor Andrew Jackson, an expert in neural interfaces at Newcastle University.
“This is solid engineering but mediocre neuroscience,” he said.
Jackson told Insider following the 2020 presentation that the wireless relay from the Neuralink chip could potentially have a big impact on the welfare of animal test subjects in science, as most neural interfaces currently in use on test animals involve wires poking out through the skin.
“Even if the technology doesn’t do anything more than we’re able to do at the moment — in terms of number of channels or whatever — just from a welfare aspect for the animals, I think if you can do experiments with something that doesn’t involve wires coming through the skin, that’s going to improve the welfare of animals,” he said.
Pager played the games using a joystick that was disconnected from the games console, meaning he was controlling the cursor using his brain signals as his arm moved.
Musk re-iterated the claim in February 2021, two months ahead of the video demonstration.
Neuroscientists speaking to Insider in 2019 said that while the claim might grab the attention of readers, they did not find it surprising or even particularly impressive.
“The monkey is not surfing the internet. The monkey is probably moving a cursor to move a little ball to try to match a target,”said Professor Andrew Hires, an assistant professor of neurobiology at the University of California said in 2019.
Implanting primates with neural-brain interfaces that let them control objects on screens has been done before. Professor Andrew Jackson of the University of Newcastle told Insider in April 2021 researchers first pioneered this kind of tech in 2002 — but arguably its origins go all the way back to the 1960s.
“If you just watched this presentation, you would think that it’s coming out of nowhere, that Musk is doing this magic, but in reality, he’s really copied and pasted a lot of work from many, many labs that have been working on this,” he added.
Previously in 2019 Musk said the company hoped to get a chip into a human patient by the end of 2020.
Experts voiced doubt about this timeline at the time, as part of safety testing a neural interface device involves implanting it in an animal test subject (normally a primate) and leaving it there for an extended amount of time to test its longevity — as any chip would have to stay in a human patient’s brain for a lifetime.
“You can’t accelerate that process. You just have to wait — and see how long the electrodes last. And if the goal is for these to last decades, it’s hard to imagine how you’re going to be able to test this without waiting long periods of time to see how well the devices perform,” Jacob Robinson, a neuroengineer at Rice University, told STAT News in 2019.
Prof. Andrew Hires told Insider another application could be allowing people to control robotic prostheses with their minds.
“The first application you can imagine is better mental control for a robotic arm for someone who’s paralyzed,” Hires said in a 2019 interview with Insider, saying that the electrodes in a patient’s brain could potentially reproduce the sensation of touch, allowing the patient to exert finer motor control over a prosthetic limb.
As part of its announcement, the company said its chip’s first commercial application could be to help quadriplegic people. Quadriplegic is paralysis in all four limbs.
“The first indication this device is intended for is to help quadriplegics regain their digital freedom by allowing users to interact with their computers or phones in a high bandwidth and naturalistic way. The funds from the round will be used to take Neuralink’s first product to market and accelerate the research and development of future products,” Neuralink said in a blog post.
Musk told “Artificial Intelligence” podcast host Lex Fridman in 2019 that Neuralink was “intended to address the existential risk associated with digital superintelligence.”
“We will not be able to be smarter than a digital supercomputer, so, therefore, if you cannot beat ’em, join ’em,” Musk added.
Musk has made lots of fanciful claims about the enhanced abilities Neuralink could confer. In 2020 Musk said people would “save and replay memories” like in “Black Mirror,” or telepathically summon their car.
Experts have expressed doubts about these claims.
“Not to say that that won’t happen, but I think that the underlying neuroscience is much more shaky. We understand much less about how those processes work in the brain, and just because you can predict the position of the pig’s leg when it’s walking on a treadmill, that doesn’t then automatically mean you’ll be able to read thoughts,” Prof. Andrew Jackson told Insider in 2020.
In 2019 Prof. Andrew Hires said Musk’s claims about merging with AI is where he goes off into “aspirational fantasy land.”
“To get any of these devices into your brain […] is very, very high-risk surgery,” she said. “People do it because they have severe limitations and there is a potential there to improve their life. Doing it for fun is not a great idea,” she added.