In his hyperbolic style, serial entrepreneur and inventor Elon Musk stepped onto a stage in San Francisco on Tuesday evening bearing a grand announcement: Neuralink (one of his many startups) has developed technology that is meant to be implanted into the brain of humans, enabling users to control smartphones, computers, and just about any compatible digital device with their thoughts alone.
Neuralink was founded by Musk in 2016 and has so far raised $158 million in funding, $100 million of which came from Musk himself. The company’s mission is that of averting what the entrepreneur considers a serious existential threat to mankind: artificial intelligence (AI) surpassing human intelligence. This goal would be achieved by employing technology in symbiosis with human biology to augment our intellect.
“I think this is going to be important at a civilization-wide scale,” Musk said at the event. “Even under a benign AI, we will be left behind. With a high bandwidth brain-machine interface, we will have the option to go along for the ride.”
Since the startup was incorporated, not much has been known about the technology it develops other than cryptic hints that it has something to do with “brain-computer” interfaces and esoteric mind-control and telepathic devices. This all changed last night at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco when Musk and Neuralink researchers stepped on stage to reveal progress in creating an implantable device that, allegedly, can read your mind.
Neuralink’s flagship technology consists of thousands of electrodes much thinner than the human hair, which can be implanted directly into the brain. These electrodes relay brain signals to an AirPod-like device mounted behind the ear which can wirelessly connect to a smartphone app, allowing the user to control the smartphone by thought alone.
In a white paper authored by “Musk & Neuralink”, the authors describe how they implanted the device into 19 rats, resulting in a successful implantation 87% of the time. The next big step for the company, Musk claims, is to perform a human clinical trial as early as 2020 for a version of the device that is intended for “patients with serious unmet medical diseases.”
According to Dr. Matthew McDougall, who is Neuralink’s head neurosurgeon, this first trial will target patients with complete paralysis and will involve installing four Neuralink implants. These implants would allow quadriplegics to independently manipulate robot arms to perform manual tasks like drinking. Neuralink claims that its implants, which have 1,000 times more electrodes interfacing with the brain than a currently FDA-approved brain interface device used for Parkinson’s patients, would make an important improvement to patients’ lives.
However, going from rats to humans is quite the leap — even for a person as famous for his overly optimistic deadlines as Elon Musk. A premarket trial which ought to involve at least 100 people typically requires a minimum observational period of two years and often can be as long as 7 years.
What’s more, Musk went off-script at the event, suggesting that Neuralink has also been tested in monkeys.
“We definitely need to address the elephant in the room, the monkey in the room,” Musk said. “A monkey has been able to control the computer with his brain. Just, FYI.”
What about regular people? Neuralink envisions a market where its products are used by anyone, for instance, people who would like to augment their abilities rather than makeup for a disability. In the future, Musk says that his startup’s devices would not involve drilling holes in the skull — as they do now — but would rather be very simple and easy to fix, just like Lasik or laser vision correction.
“One of the big bottlenecks is that a mechanical drill couples vibration through the skull, which is unpleasant,” Neuralink President Max Hodak said, “whereas a laser drill, you wouldn’t feel.”