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Celebrity engineer Elon Musk today announced a breakthrough in his endeavor to sync the human brain with artificial intelligence. During a live-streamed demonstration involving farm animals and a stage, Musk said that his company Neuralink had built a self-contained neural implant that can wirelessly transmit detailed brain activity without the aid of external hardware.
Musk demonstrated the device with live pigs, one of which had the implant in its brain. A screen above the pig streamed the electrical brain activity being registered by the device. “It’s like a Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires,” Musk said in his presentation. “You need an electrical thing to solve an electrical problem.”
One of the Neuralink pigs at Musk’s online demo today.Screengrab: Randi Klett
Musk’s goal is to build a neural implant that can sync up the human brain with AI, enabling humans to control computers, prosthetic limbs, and other machines using only thoughts. When asked during the live Q&A whether the device would ever be used for gaming, Musk answered an emphatic “yes.”
Musk’s aspirations for this brain-computer interface (BCI) system are to be able to read and write from millions of neurons in the brain, translating human thought into computer commands, and vice versa. And it would all happen on a small, wireless, battery-powered implant unseen from the outside of the body. His company has been working on the technology for about four years.
Teams of researchers globally have been experimenting with surgically implanted BCI systems in humans for over 15 years. The BrainGate consortium and other groups have used BCI to enable people with neurologic diseases and paralysis to operate tablets, type eight words per minute and control prosthetic limbs using only their thoughts.
All of this work is highly experimental. Since 2003, fewer than 20 people in the U.S. have received a BCI implant, all for restorative, medical purposes on a research basis. Most of these systems involve hardware protruding from the head, providing power and data transmission.
These external components create the potential risk of infection and aren’t practical outside a research setting. A few groups have experimented in animals with self-contained, fully implanted devices, but not with the capabilities that Neuralink claims to have.
Neuralink’s implant contains all the necessary components, including a battery, processing chip, and bluetooth radio, along with about a thousand electrode contacts, all on board the device. Each electrode records the activity of somewhere between zero and four neurons in the brain. A thousand of them in a living animal would be the highest number the BCI field has seen from a self-contained implant.
Neuralink’s device, if it proves capable of transmitting data safely over the long-term, would be a “major advance” says Bolu Ajiboye, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at Case Western Reserve University and a principal investigator with BrainGate, who is not involved with Neuralink. “There are some really smart, innovative people working at Neuralink. They know what they’re doing and I’m excited to see what they present,” he says.
But the company’s data has not yet been vetted by the research community. (Three pigs on a stage isn’t quite the same as peer-reviewed data). How the device can transmit that much data without generating tissue-damaging heat is not yet demonstrated in humans.
Plus, Neuralink’s device is “pretty big” for the brain, says Ajiboye. Its cylindrical shape measures 23 mm in diameter by 8 mm long—about the size of a stack of 5 U.S. quarters. By comparison, the Utah array, which has been the go-to device for the BrainGate consortium, measures 4 mm x 4 mm. That device involves hardware protruding from the skull and contains about a hundred electrodes, compared to Neuralink’s 1000.
Neuralink achieved the advance by experimenting with different materials, upgrading the antennae and wirelessly transmitting only heavily compressed embeddings of neural data from the implant, along with other optimizations made possible through a fast feedback cycle, says Max Hodak, president of Neuralink, who spoke with Spectrum prior to today’s live demonstration. One of the company’s latest prototypes is made of monolithically cast forms of glass that are laser welded together and hermetically sealed. The device so far has lasted safely in pigs for two months, says Hodak.
During today’s demonstration, which was held at Neuralink’s headquarters in Fremont, California, three pigs were led into corrals where they were able to move about freely in front of a small (human) audience. Gertrude, the pig with the implant, didn’t want to come out to her corral at first, leaving Musk stranded in front of over 150,000 online viewers. She did eventually come out, with her brain activity streamed on a screen above her. Every time she sniffed the electrical activity in her brain spiked.
Once this kind of brain wave data is obtained, the big question is how to decode and interpret it. “Neural decoding is critically important,” says Ajiboye. “A number of laboratories around the world are spending lots of person-hours on decoding algorithms, using different statistical and deep learning approaches. I haven’t seen that from Neuralink.”
Neuralink has developed a surgical robot capable of inserting the implant’s electrodes at shallow depths into the brain. Robotic precision reduces the risk of damage to brain tissue.
Neuralink’s first applications for the technology will be for medical purposes, likely for people with spinal cord injuries. Musk, in bold fashion, has said he wants to pursue non-medical applications too, further in the future. This has led to a lot of hype in the media.
“We as a field need to be very responsible about what we’re claiming the technology can do, and what application we’re driving toward,” says Ajiboye. “By Elon Musk being in this field there’s a lot of attention being brought to it. That is welcome, but there are challenges posed there. One of those challenges is hype versus reality.” He adds: “Neuralink has entered this race and is riding a fast horse, but there are other devices in development.”
Emily Waltz is a contributing editor at Spectrum covering the intersection of technology and the human body. Her favorite topics include electrical stimulation of the nervous system, wearable sensors, and tiny medical robots that dive deep into the human body. She has been writing for Spectrum since 2012, and for the Nature journals since 2005. Emily has a master's degree from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and an undergraduate degree from Vanderbilt University. She aims to say something true and useful in every story she writes. Contact her via @EmWaltz on Twitter or through her website.