Neuralink: What do brain implants do and why is Elon Musk making them?

Neuralink: What do brain implants do and why is Elon Musk making them?

Neuralink was founded by Elon Musk to create brain-computer interfaces

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What is Neuralink?

Neuralink was founded in 2016 by Elon Musk, who also runs SpaceX, Tesla and X, formerly Twitter, to create brain-computer interfaces: devices connected to the brain that allow people to communicate with computers by thought alone.

These devices could allow you to carry out simple tasks like searching for information or performing complex calculations with computers. They could theoretically also create technological telepathy, restore sight to people who are blind and enable paralysed people to control prostheses and regain their movement. Musk has said in the past that his company’s technology could allow humans to form “a sort of symbiosis” with AI.

What has Neuralink achieved so far?

Neuralink’s device is around the size of a coin and designed to be implanted beneath the skull, with tiny wires reaching a short distance into the brain to read neuron activity. The company has already run trials in pigs and demonstrated that a monkey could play the classic video game Pong using the device. In May 2023, Neuralink said it had received approval for human tests.

According to a tweet by Musk, this trial is now taking place. An anonymous human subject received the implant on 28 January and is “recovering well”, said Musk. No other details of the trial have yet been released and Neuralink did not respond to New Scientist’s request for comment.

Has this been done before?

Musk’s company is far from the only group working on this idea. Many academic groups and commercial start-ups have already run human trials and succeeded in correctly interpreting brain signals into some kind of output.

One team at Stanford University in California placed two small sensors just under the surface of the brain of a man who was paralysed below the neck. Researchers were able to interpret the man’s brain signals when he thought of writing words with a pen on paper, and convert them into readable text on a computer.

Is the technology safe?

That is what the trial is intended to discover. But Neuralink’s previous animal experiments have not all been successful, according to reports.

In 2022 the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, an advocacy organisation, sent a letter to the US Department of Agriculture requesting an investigation into what it called “apparent egregious violations of the Animal Welfare Act related to the treatment of monkeys used in invasive brain experiments”.

A Reuters report that same year cited documents and sources that indicated Neuralink’s tests had killed 1500 animals, in some cases causing “needless suffering and deaths”.

Any device intended for human implantation will need to clear a number of regulatory hurdles to ensure that the device itself, the process of installation and its continued use is relatively safe and that any potential risks are well understood.

When will Neuralink be available and how much will it cost?

We are a long way from this being a commercial product, with lots of testing and accreditation ahead, so it is too early to tell. But Musk has made it clear that he intends to commercialise the technology. The first planned product has been named “Telepathy” and will allow users to control their phones and computers.

Tara Spires-Jones at the University of Edinburgh, UK, told the Science Media Centre, a non-profit organisation in the UK, that Neuralink has great potential and that numerous research groups are working on similar ideas.

“In recent research trials (not related to Neuralink), scientists have been able to implant brain-spine interfaces which help people with paralysis to walk, and other work shows promising results in computers interpreting brain waves and brain scans to allow people who can’t speak to communicate,” she said. “However, most of these interfaces require invasive neurosurgery and are still in experimental stages, thus it will likely be many years before they are commonly available.”

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