Elon Musk took a short break from tweeting yesterday to host another Neuralink “Show and Tell” event. At the last one in 2021, Neuralink revealed it had implanted its brain-computer interface chip in the brains of monkeys, giving them the ability to control a game of pong just by thinking. In the latest update, Neuralink discussed improvements to the design, and Musk claimed Neuralink could begin human trials in just six months.
Neuralink was co-founded by Musk in 2016 with the aim of developing a brain-computer interface (BCI), an implantable device that can translate impulses from the brain into signals that can be understood by a computer. The company again showed what its primate test subjects are capable of, including one that typed a welcome message (allegedly) by moving a computer cursor with its mind. This technology could also help people with diseases or injuries that limit their mobility control prosthetics in a more natural way.
A report after the previous Neuralink event accused the company of animal cruelty, killing 15 of 23 monkeys that received the implants. Musk mentioned those claims on Wednesday without going into the specifics. “Before we would even think of putting a device in an animal, we do everything possible with rigorous benchtop testing. We’re not cavalier about putting these devices into animals,” he said. The implant uses as many as 1,024 electrode-studded threads (above) to measure brain activity, each of which is inserted into the brain by a sewing machine-like robot. Musk says having the implant installed is not unlike having a piece of your skull replaced with a Fitbit.
The event, which you can watch in full above, detailed several improvements in Neuralink’s design. For example, the company showed how one of the monkey test subjects was trained to sit under a wireless charger in its habitat to recharge the BCI chip. The latest charger is faster and more compact than older versions, and it maintains temperature changes under 2 degrees Celsius. That’s important for a device in contact with brain tissue. Neuralink has also made the chip more efficient by discarding electrical data outside of “spikes,” which indicate neurons firing.
By Musk’s own admission, the latest Show and Tell is aimed at recruitment — Neuralink is hoping to fill numerous positions as it moves “from prototype to product.” Previously, Musk said he hoped to implant a Neuralink chip in a person in 2020, and then he revised that timeline to 2022. With the latest six-month estimate, the timeline has been pushed to 2023. In the meantime, Neuralink competitor Synchron has leapfrogged it, implanting a brain chip in a patient with ALS who lost their ability to move and communicate. The Synchron BCI chip will allow the patient to control a computer with a thought. Neuralink has submitted data to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which it hopes will grant preliminary approval for human testing in the coming months.