After testing on monkeys and pigs, Neuralink may be able to plant its first chip into a human brain in six months, its founder and CEO Elon Musk claimed on Wednesday.
Neuralink, founded in 2016, is working to build an implantable device that can stimulate different areas of the brain allowing those that are paralysed or blind to walk, see, and communicate. The company has only tested its brain-computer interface in animals so far, and is set on trialling the device in humans soon.
“We have submitted most of our paperwork to the FDA, and probably in about six months we should be able to have our first neuralink in a human,” Musk said in a company’s show and tell presentation.
Like all of Musk’s proclamations, they should be taken with a grain of salt. The world’s richest man often makes outlandish claims and sets overly ambitious deadlines that aren’t met. He has previously said he hoped Neuralink would start human trials in 2020, 2021, again in 2022, and now it’s 2023.
So what’s different this time? Not much, really. The latest device, dubbed N1, is the size of a quarter with 1,024 channels to probe the brain with and uses Bluetooth to charge wirelessly and transmit data. The wearer has to drill a hole into their skull, where the chip can be connected to their brain via 64 threads pierced into their grey matter. The operation is performed by a robot and the insertion takes just 15 minutes, according to DJ Seo, Neuralink’s VP of Implant.
Musk made similar remarks about a 1,024-channel-chip and a surgical robot too in 2020. The latest demonstration, however, did feature monkeys trained to perform more tasks than just playing Pong. Neuralink showed the animals could now use their brain implants to move a cursor around, type into a keyboard, and handwrite numbers on screens.
In one clip, a monkey named Sake, is said to be moving a cursor to type out the short sentence “welcome to show and tell” with just his mind. Obviously, Sake can’t actually spell words and is, instead, trained to recognise and select keywords in the right order to string together the phrase. Musk, however, said one day humans could use the device to communicate with one another.
Neuralink is currently working to stimulate the brain’s motor and visual cortex in the hope that it can help restore a patient’s ability to move or see. Musk also teased out the next upgraded version of the implant, which will apparently feature 4,096 channels and run off Arm’s Cortex M-23 processor.
“The first production device will be like an iPhone 1, but you don’t want an iPhone 1 in your head if the iPhone 14 is available,” he said.
The long-term goal of the company, however, isn’t just to help restore brain function in patients but to help humanity co-evolve with AI. “What do we do if we have a digital superintelligence that is much smarter than any human?,” he asked.
Musk believes humans will need brain-computer devices to expand their technical abilities as machines become more powerful. “We are already cyborgs in a way that your phone and your computer are extensions of yourself,” he said.
Well if you can’t beat them, you might as well, erm, become them? ®