Neuralink, a startup founded by Elon Musk that makes brain-machine interfaces, just posted a video showing off the power of its implants. It shows a 9-year-old Macaque monkey fitted with two implants playing Pong solely with its mind.
Musk hinted at this milestone achievement during a Clubhouse meeting in February when he casually mentioned “We have a monkey with a wireless implant in their skull who can play video games using his mind.” Now we have actual proof.
According to Neuralink, the monkey named Pager was first trained to play Pong with a joystick. Each time it complied and engaged with the game, Pager received a much-deserved banana smoothie treat.
During this training round, Pager’s brain activity was recorded, which included information about which neurons fired. Later, the joystick was removed and Pager could play the game with his mind since the computer could decode the brain signals that corresponded to imaginary hand movements.
That’s mighty impressive, although we don’t have any peer-reviewed paper that other researchers might independently verify. But even though we only have a video to go for, there’s no reason to believe the achievement isn’t genuine.
Pong is the go-to demonstration game for brain-machine interfaces, even non-invasive ones such as those that simply use EEG caps to record brain activity. We’ve seen humans play Pong just with their minds and we’ve also seen paralyzed individuals control robotic arms and other prosthetics using a brain-machine interface.
Neuroscientists have, in fact, been recording brain cells in conscious animals since the 1950s. At the turn of the 21st century, brain signals from monkeys were used to control an artificial arm. And in 2006, the BrainGate team began implanting arrays of 100 electrodes in the brains of paralyzed people, enabling basic control of computer cursors and assistive devices.
So, all of this is well within the realm of possibility.
Neuralink’s most immediate goal with its products is to “give people with paralysis their digital freedom back: to communicate more easily via text, to follow their curiosity on the web, to express their creativity through photography and art, and, yes, to play video games.” Indeed, Elon Musk himself tweeted soon after the promo video with Pager was released, claiming the first product “will enable someone with paralysis to use a smartphone with their mind faster than someone using thumbs.”
The Neuralink implants were first unveiled to the world in 2019, during an event presided over by Musk himself. The implants consist of thousands of electrodes much thinner than a human hair, which relay brain signals to a computer. According to Musk, even healthy people could one day get an implant connected to an AirPod-like device mounted behind the ear, which would wirelessly connect to a smartphone app, allowing the user to control the smartphone by thought alone.