With a pig named Gertrude, Elon Musk demonstrated his startup Neuralink’s technology to build a digital link between brains and computers. A wireless link from the Neuralink device showed the pig’s activity activity as it snuffled around a pen on stage Friday night.
The demonstration shows the the technology to be significantly closer to delivering on Musk’s radical ambitions than during a 2019 product debut, when Neuralink only showed photos of a rat with a Neuralink connected via a USB-C port. It’s still far from reality, but Musk said the US Food and Drug Administration in July granted approval for “breakthrough device” testing.
Musk also showed a second-generation device that’s more compact and that fits into a small cavity hollowed out of a hole in a skull.
“It’s like a Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires,” Musk said of the device.
It communicates with brain cells with 1,024 thin electrodes that penetrate within brain cell. Then there’s a Bluetooth link to an outside computing device, though the company is looking at other radio technology it can dramatically increase the number of data links.
Although the pig demonstration showed neural activity being broadcast wirelessly to a computer, it didn’t reveal any of Neuralink’s long-term ambitions, like a computer usefully communicating back to a brain or a computer understanding what the spikes of neural activity actually mean.
Medical start for Neuralink
Neuralink has a medical focus to start, like helping people deal with brain and spinal cord injuries or congenital defects. The technology could help paraplegics who have lost the ability to move or sense because of spinal cord injury, for example, and the first human uses will aim to improve conditions like paraplegia or tetraplegia.
“If you can sense what people want to do with their limbs, you can do a second implant where the spinal injury occurred and create a neural shunt,” Musk said. “I’m confident in the long term it’ll be possible to restore somebody’s full body motion.”
But Musk’s vision is far more radical, including ideas like “conceptual telepathy” where two people can communicate electronically by thinking at each other instead of writing or speaking. The long-term goal is to head off a future where.
Musk envisions people using Neuralink to connect to their own digital AI incarnations so “the future is controlled by the combined will of the people of Earth,” Musk said. “It’s going to be important from an existential threat perspective to achieve a good AI symbiosis.”
Backup and restore your memories
“The future is going to be weird,” Musk said, discussing sci-fi uses of Neuralink. “In the future you will be able to save and reply memories,” he said. “You could basically store your memories as a backup and restore the memories. You could potentially download them into a new body or into a robot body.”
He’s aware some people are going to see trouble in Neuralink, too. “This is increasingly sounding like a Black Mirror episode,” Musk said, referring to the dystopian TV series.
He also discussed seeing in infrared, ultraviolet or X-ray using digital camera data. “Over time we could give somebody supervision,” Musk said.
Neuralink is building a robotic installer that ultimately is designed to handle the full surgical installation process. That includes opening up the scalp, removing a portion of the skull, inserting the hundreds of “thread” electrodes along with an accompanying computer chip, then closing the incision. The installer is designed to dodge blood vessels to avoid bleeding, Musk said.
As with Fitbit, Apple Watch and other wearable technology, Musk sees a health benefit for Neuralink besides direct brain-computer communications. Neuralink chips can measure temperature, pressure and movement, data that could warn you about a heart attack or stroke, Musk said.
Computers need power, and Neuralink’s in-skull chip gets it by charging wirelessly through the skin, Musk said.
Neuralink’s previous work
Since the launch event last year, Musk and Neuralink have published one scientific paper, in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, in October. The paper described the development of their robotic device, an arm able to delicately insert hundreds of thin threads, about a tenth of the width of a human hair, into the brain. It’s sometimes dubbed the “sewing machine” and is capable of inserting around six threads per minute, each one composed of flexible plastics and featuring 192 electrodes.
The company’s early research focused on interfacing with the rodent brain. In the October paper, Musk and Neuralink detailed two Neuralink systems, A and B, tested on rats. The former can insert more than 1,500 electrodes and the latter, 3,000. The paper describes a free-moving rat attached to system B, with a USB-C slot sticking out of its head, but there is no clear indication of Neuralink having settled on the best place for electrodes.
In the paper, Musk and Neuralink acknowledge “significant technological challenges must be addressed before a high-bandwidth device is suitable for clinical application.”
The rodent work is impressive, but what caught people’s attention last year was Musk’s assertion that a monkey had been “able to control a computer with his brain”. No evidence was provided in the JMIR paper to support that assertion, and Musk didn’t mention it Friday.