Last Wednesday, Elon Musk caught the AI community’s attention with a tweet announcing an upcoming “Live webcast of working @Neuralink device…” On Friday, the billionaire tech entrepreneur delivered. With pigs.
Elon Musk’s secretive neurotech company Neuralink presented a live demo from its headquarters in Fremont, California. Viewers were shown signals tracked from an area of the brain linked to the snout of a pig named Gertrude, who had two months previously been implanted with a Neuralink device called simply the “Link.“
Musk introduced the experimental Neuralink brain-machine-interface (BMI) system last summer. It inserts a sensor (now called “Link“) and electrodes into brains to connect neurons for data transfer. The Link used in the demo is about the size of a large coin, as Musk put it, “kind of like a Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires.”
While many viewers may have been expecting to see how neurons fire in real-time in a human brain — teased by Musk’s “matrix in the matrix” tweet prior to the live session — the audio signals representing the animal’s neurons firing was nonetheless impressive enough for most.
There was immediate reaction on social media, with some casting doubts and others sharing kudos on the update. Google Brain research scientist Ben Poole tweeted, “no thank you #neuralink.” Reverse-engineering expert and popular tech blogger Jane Manchun Wong tweeted, “Musk said memory might be able to be downloaded and restored via Neuralink in the future ‘The future is weird’ he said At some point, I think governments might turn to Brain-Computer Interface like Neuralink for mass surveillance, and detain people for thinking about something. I think brain-computer interface can be very beneficial for medical purposes (if clinically proven useful). But it is also a powerful tech and I think the non-medical use should be regulated before it potentially goes wrong.”
Neuralink’s sophisticated robotic electrode inserter can surgically attach 1,024 ultra-thin threads to brain tissue. Musk believes the automated sewing robot will eventually be able to perform all actions involved in implanting the Link. “In terms of getting a Link, you need to have the device and a great robot that puts in the electrodes and does the surgery. So you want the surgery to be as automated as possible,” he explained before launching a recruitment pitch: “We’re looking for great people who can help develop both the device and the robot.”
Musk boasted that the new Link has about a thousand channels, which is “a hundred times better than the next best consumer device that is available.” He said he anticipates an optimized Link surgical procedure will take under an hour, “so you can basically go in the morning and leave the hospital in the afternoon. And it can be done without general anesthesia.”
Newcastle University Professor of Neural Interfaces Andrew Jackson was not sold on the project: “Solid engineering but mediocre neuroscience,” he tweeted. “I don’t think there was anything revolutionary in the presentation, but they are working through the engineering challenges of placing multiple electrodes into the brain. In terms of their technology, 1024 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.”
Neuralink President Max Hodak previously announced the company would start experiments with human subjects in 2020, expressing the hope that the experimental BMI system could be used to treat patients with brain diseases or spinal cord injuries. During his demo, Musk did not provide any timeline for when Neuralink might be tested in human subjects. However, during the Q&A session, Neuralink Head Neurosurgeon Matthew MacDougall said the “first clinical trial is aimed at people with tetraplegia, so cervical spinal cord injury. We’re going to enroll a small number of patients to make sure that the device is safe and that it works.“
Neuralink has received a “breakthrough device” designation from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), part of a program for specific medical devices and device-led combination products that provide “more effective treatment or diagnosis of life-threatening or irreversibly debilitating diseases or conditions.” This designation enables Neuralink to work closely with the FDA on developing the device for a clinical environment.
Neuralink was founded by Musk, Hodak and others in 2016.
Reporter: Fangyu Cai | Editor: Michael Sarazen
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