Elon Musk’s Neuralink Corp. plans to begin implanting its coin-sized computer brain implant into human patients within six months, the firm revealed on Wednesday evening during an event at its Fremont, Calif. headquarters.
The product, which consists of a small gadget and electrode-laced cables, as well as a robot that carves off a portion of a person’s skull and implants it into the brain, has been refined by Neuralink. According to Musk, ongoing conversations with the US Food and Drug Administration have gone well enough for the business to set a target of conducting its first human trials within the next six months.
In typical Elon Musk fashion, Neuralink is already charging ahead, aiming implants at other parts of the body. Musk revealed work on two major products, in addition to the brain-computer interface, during the event. It is working on implants that can be inserted into the spinal cord and potentially restore movement to people who are paralyzed. It also includes an ocular implant designed to improve or restore human vision.
“As miraculous as that may sound, we are confident that it is possible to restore full-body functionality to someone who has a severed spinal cord,” Musk said at the event. Turning to Neuralink’s vision work, he added that “even if they have never seen before, we are confident they could see.”
The purpose of a brain-computer interface, or BCI, is to first allow a person suffering from a debilitating ailment, such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or the aftereffects of a stroke, to communicate through their thoughts. The business showed this by putting a monkey in front of a screen and “telepathically typing” on it. The Neuralink gadget converts neural spikes into data that a computer can understand. Musk hopes that the device will one day become commonplace, allowing information to be transferred between humans and machines. He has long argued that humans can only keep up with artificial intelligence’s advances with the help of computer-like augmentations.
“You are so used to being a de-facto cyborg,” Musk said. “But if you’re interacting with your phone, you’re limited.”
As has been the case with past Neuralink events, some of the things demonstrated by Musk and his team have already been accomplished in academic settings. The company’s critics have long accused Musk of overhyping Neuralink’s advances and over-promising what the technology will be able to do in the near future, if ever.
Brain-machine interface technology has been researched and advanced by academia for decades. Musk’s entry into the arena, however, has spurred a wave of investment from venture capitalists into startups and helped push the field forward at a much more rapid clip.
We are now confident that the Neuralink device is ready for humans, so timing is a function of working through the FDA approval process
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 1, 2022
When it comes to human testing, a handful of comparable firms are ahead of Neuralink. Synchron Inc., for example, has implanted a tiny stent-like device into patients’ brains in Australia and the United States. Patients who were unable to move or talk may now interact wirelessly using computers and their thoughts thanks to the device. Onward Inc. has also accomplished ground-breaking work in regaining some mobility in persons with spinal cord injuries.
Neuralink’s suggested brain surgery is significantly more intrusive than Synchron’s or most other rivals in the field. A patient’s skull must be removed, and wires must be placed into their brain tissue. For years, Neuralink has conducted testing on primates to demonstrate that the procedure is safe and that the implant may remain within the brain for extended periods of time without causing harm.
Animal rights activists criticized Neuralink’s previous handling of monkeys when it depended on a partner facility for some of its studies. Neuralink in-housed its animal husbandry program years ago and has worked hard to make it a model for others to follow. This writer has seen the primates a few times in the last two years. They seemed well-cared for and showed no signs of harm from the implants.
The advantage that Neuralink has over its competitors is one of computing power. Musk believes that more invasive surgery, along with more computer power, would enable Neuralink’s technology to produce better outcomes and restore more functions in humans than competing goods.
Musk’s business has already missed several of the billionaire’s aggressive timetables for implanting the BCI. Musk, being Musk, has prodded his engineers to work faster and harder in meetings over the past several months. During a recent product review meeting, Musk informed his employees, “We’ll all be dead before something worthwhile happens.” “We need to elevate our game. We need to ship items that are valuable.” During the same discussion, Musk voiced concern that improvements in AI will outstrip Neuralink’s efforts, rendering the company’s efforts futile.
Some of Neuralink’s main concerns with the BCI implant have been making sure that the robot can perform surgeries quickly and with minimal harm to the body. Musk foresees a day when people get brain implants as a quick outpatient procedure.
The paralysis and ocular work only started relatively recently, and Musk has been pressing his teams to advance the state-of-the-art in the technology at a record pace.
Autumn Sorrells, the animal care director at Neuralink, has been working to make sure that the experiments done on the primates and pigs are conducted in a safe manner and has been implementing new techniques to train them. Neuralink has an enclosure for the primates in Fremont that includes toys and televisions to keep the animals entertained as people check to see how their implants are functioning.
In recent months, the animals had to leave their cages and be restrained to have their implants recharged. More recently, however, Neuralink devised a more relaxed setup that lets the primates recharge under a helmet in their cages while they eat. The company is building out a much more expansive animal enclosure at a campus in Austin, Texas.
While still very much in its early days, the totality of work being done by Neuralink makes it the only general-purpose BCI company. Other startups have focused on the brain or the eye or the spinal cord. Meanwhile, Neuralink really hopes to do it all.