HomeTechnologyElon Musk shows his brain chips and robotic surgeon at Neuralink recruitment event

Elon Musk shows his brain chips and robotic surgeon at Neuralink recruitment event

Elon Musk shows his brain chips and robotic surgeon at Neuralink recruitment event

Elon Musk — the SpaceX founder, Tesla CEO, and, most recently, Twitter owner — hosted a flashy event on Wednesday night for yet another one of his companies: health tech venture Neuralink, the startup proposing implants that connect your brain to a computer.

Musk said during the event that he plans to get one of the implants himself.

Musk said two of the company’s applications will aim to restore vision, even for people who were born blind, and a third application will focus on the motor cortex, restoring “full body functionality” for people with severed spinal cords. “We’re confident there are no physical limitations to restoring full body functionality,” Musk said.

Neuralink could begin to test the motor cortex technology in humans in as soon as six months, Musk said.

The event showcased a video that Musk said showed a monkey using a brain implant to control a cursor and type on a computer.

It’s not a brand new technology, as researchers have been working on devices that can decode brain signals for a practical purpose for decades. For example, allowing a person to type words or play video games with only their brain has been done before.

Musk noted during the “show and tell” event that the primary goal of the evening was to recruit talent to Neuralink.

“A lot of the time people think that they couldn’t really work at Neuralink because they don’t know anything about biology or how the brain works,” Musk said. “The thing we really want to emphasize here is that you don’t need to because when you break down the skills that are needed to make Neuralink work, it’s actually many of the same skills that are required to make a smart watch or modern phone work.”

DJ Seo, Neuralink’s vice president of implants, showed off the latest iteration of the company’s device, noting that it’ll be wireless and rechargeable. He also shared footage of a robot that he said was built to perform the implant surgery and also ran through a demonstration of what that surgery could look like, noting that manufacturing and a test clinic were being set up in Austin, Texas.

Musk launched Neuralink more than five years ago with the goal of developing technologies that can enhance the connection between humans and computer by way of implanting chips into peoples’ brains. The company so far has only tested on animals.

Last year, for example, Neuralink said it was able to allow monkeys to play the video game Pong using only their brain implants, though something similar had already been accomplished in a human with a brain implant more than a decade prior. Musk touted footage of the monkey playing Pong again on Wednesday.

The use of animals, however, has angered activists. The company has acknowledged that a monkey had died during the testing process.

“We do everything we possibly can with rigorous benchtop testing so we’re not cavalier about putting devices into animals,” Musk said Wednesday.

The core idea behind Neuralink brings up numerous ethical and sociopolitical questions. But proponents say such devices provide life-changing help to amputees and disabled persons if they, for example, lose the ability to use their hands or see.

Musk, however, also tends to emphasize non-medical uses, such as using brain implants to even the playing field, if digital artificial intelligence becomes smarter than any human.

“How do we mitigate that risk? At a species level?” Musk asked Wednesday. “Even in a benign scenario, where the AI is very, very benevolent — then how do we go along for the ride?”

Musk’s Neuralink is not the only organization pursuing this technology. And some researchers with federal funding are already doing some clinical trials.

During Wednesday’s event, Musk was asked if Neuralink would plan to make its tools available to neuroscientists. He replied that the company would

it had reached the production phase.

Before Neuralink’s brain implants are mass produced and hit the broader market, they’ll need regulatory approval. The US Food and Drug Administration put out a paper in May last year mapping out the agency’s initial thoughts on brain-computer interface devices, noting the field is “progressing rapidly.”

Musk said Wednesday that Neuraink has submitted “most” of its paperwork to the FDA and could begin testing on humans within six months. It should be noted, however, that Musk frequently touts deadlines that don’t come to fruition, from his claims about when SpaceX would get its Mars rocket to space to his predictions about when self-driving cars would be on the road.

Neuralink’s flashy presentations are unusual for companies in the medical devices space, said Anna Wexler, an assistant professor of medical ethics and health policy at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. She said it’s risky to encourage people who have serious disabilities to get their hopes up, especially if they could possibly incur injuries as the technology is implanted during surgery.

Wexler encouraged people to put on their “skeptic hat” about Neuralink’s big claims.

“From an ethical perspective, I think that hype is very concerning,” she said. “Space or Twitter, that’s one thing, but when you come into the medical context, the stakes are higher.”

Chen, who specializes in BCIs(brain-computer interfaces), said Neuralink’s implants would require subjects to undergo a very invasive procedure. Doctors would need to create a hole in the skull in order to insert the device into the brain tissue.

Even so, she thinks some people would be willing to take the risk.

“There’s quite a few disorders, such as epilepsy, Parkinson’s and obsessive-compulsive disorder, in which people have received brain implants and the disorders have been treated quite successfully, allowing them to have an improved quality of life,” Chen said. “So I do feel that there is a precedent for doing this.”

Wexler said she believes the decision would ultimately come down to an individual patient’s personal risk-benefit calculation.

Neuralink is not the only company trying to innovate using BCIs, and many have made big strides in recent years. Blackrock Neurotech is on track to bring a BCI system to market next year, which would make it the first commercially available BCI in history. Synchron received FDA approval in 2021 to begin a clinical trial for a permanently implanted BCI, and Paradromics is reportedly gearing up to begin in-human testing in 2023.

Part of the article was reported by CNN.