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Watch a monkey equipped with Elon Musk’s Neuralink device play Pong with its brain

Elon Musk’s Neuralink, one of his many companies and the only one currently focused on mind control (that we’re aware of), has released a new blog post and video detailing some of its recent updates — including using its hardware to make it possible for a monkey to play pong with only its brain.

In the video above, Neuralink demonstrates how it used its sensor hardware and brain implant to record a baseline of activity from this macaque (named ‘Pager’) as it played a game on-screen where it had to move a token to different squares using a joystick with its hand. Using that baseline data, Neuralink was able to use machine learning to anticipate where Pager was going to be moving the physical controller, and was eventually able to predict it accurately before the move was actually made. Researchers then removed the paddle entirely, and eventually did the same thing with Pong, ultimately ending up at a place where Pager no longer was even moving its hand on the air on the nonexistent paddle, and was instead controlling the in-game action entirely with its mind via the Link hardware and embedded neural threads.

The last we saw of Neuralink, Musk himself was demonstrating the Link tech live in August 2020, using pigs to show how it was able to read signals from the brain depending on different stimuli. This new demo with Pager more clearly outlines the direction that the tech is headed in terms of human applications, since, as the company shared on its blog, the same technology could be used to help patients with paralysis manipulate a cursor on a computer, for instance. That could be applied to other paradigms as well, including touch controls on an iPhone, and even typing using a virtual keyboard, according to the company.

Musk separately tweeted that in fact, he expects the initial version of Neuralink’s product to be able to allow someone with paralysis that prevents standard modes of phone interaction to use one faster than people using their thumbs for input. He also added that future iterations of the product would be able to enable communication between Neuralinks in different parts of a patient’s body, transmitting between an in-brain node and neural pathways in legs, for instance, making it possible for “paraplegics to walk again.”

These are obviously bold claims, but the company cites a lot of existing research that undergirds its existing demonstrations and near-term goals. Musk’s more ambitious claims, should, like all of his projections, definitely be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism. He did add that he hopes human trials will begin to get underway “hopefully later this year,” for instance – which is already two years later than he was initially anticipating those might start.

This startup says its AI can better spot a healthy embryo — and improve IVF success

With every year, AI is beginning to bring more standardized levels of diagnostic accuracy in medicine. This is true of skin cancer detection, for example, and lung cancers.

Now, a startup in Israel called Embryonics says its AI can improve the odds of successfully implanting a healthy embryo during in vitro fertilization. What the company has been developing, in essence, is an algorithm to predict embryo implantation probability, one they have trained through IVF time-lapsed imaging of developing embryos.

It’s just getting started, to be clear. So far, in a pilot involving 11 women ranging in age from 20 to 40, six of those individuals are enjoying successful pregnancies, and the other five are awaiting results, says Embryonics.

Still, Embryonics is interesting for its potential to shake up a big market that’s been stuck for decades and continues to grow only because of external trends, like millennial women who are putting off having children owing to economic concerns.

Consider that the global in-vitro fertilization market is expected to grow from roughly $18.3 billion to nearly double that number in the next five years by some estimates. Yet the tens of thousands of women who undergo IVF each year have long faced costs of anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000 per cycle (at least in the U.S.), along with long-shot odds that grow worse with age.

Indeed, it’s the prospect of reducing the number of IVF rounds and their attendant expenses that drives Embryonics, which was founded three years ago by CEO Yael Gold-Zamir, an M.D. who studied general surgery at Hebrew University, yet became a researcher in an IVF laboratory owing to an abiding interest in the science behind fertility.

As it happens, she would be introduced to two individuals with complementary interests and expertise. One of them was David Silver, who had studied bioinformatics at the prestigious Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and who, before joining Embryonics last year, spent three years as a machine learning engineer at Apple and three years before that as an algorithm engineer at Intel.

The second individual to whom Gold-Zamir was introduced was Alex Bronstein, a serial founder who spent years as a principal engineer with Intel and who is today the head of the Center for Intelligent Systems at Technion as well as involved with several efforts involving deep learning AI, including at Embryonics and at Sibylla AI, a nascent outfit focused on algorithmic trading in capital markets.

It’s a small outfit, but the three, along with 13 other full-time employees to join them, appear to be making progress.

Fueled in part by $4 million in seed funding led by the Shuctermann Family Investment Office (led by the former president of Soros Capital, Sender Cohen) and the Israeli Innovation Authority, Embryonics says it’s about to receive regulatory approval in Europe that will enable it to sell its software — which the team says can recognize patterns and interpret image in small cell clusters with greater accuracy than a human —  to fertility clinics across the continent.

Using a database with millions of (anonymized) patient records from different centers around the world that representing all races and geographies and ages, says Gold-Zamir, the company is already eyeing next steps, too.

Most notably, beyond analyzing which of several embryos is most likely to thrive, Embryonics wants to work with fertility clinics on improving what’s called hormonal stimulation, so that their patients produce as many mature eggs as possible.

As Bronstein explains it, every woman who goes through IVF or fertility preservation goes through an hormonal stimulation process — which involves getting injected with hormones from 8 to 14 days — to induce their ovaries to produce numerous eggs. But right now, there are just three general protocols and  a “lot of trial and error in trying to establish the right one,” he says.

Though deep learning, Embryonics thinks it can begin to understand not just which hormones each individual should be taking but the different times they should be taken.

In addition to embryo selection, Embryonics has developed a non-invasive genetic test based on analysis of visual information, together with clinical data, that in some cases can detect major chromosomal aberrations like down syndrome, says Gold-Zamir.

And there’s more in the works if all goes as planned. “Embryonics’s goal is to provide a holistic solution, covering all aspects of the process,” says Gold-Zamir, who volunteers that she is raising four children of her own, along with running the company.

It’s too soon to say whether the nascent outfit will succeed, naturally. But it certainly seems to be at the forefront of a technology that is fast changing after more than 40 years wherein many IVF clinics worldwide have simply assessed embryo health by looking at days-old embryos on a petri dish under a microscope to assess their cell multiplication and shape.

In the spring of 2019, for instance, investigators from Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City published own their conclusion  that AI can evaluate embryo morphology more accurately than the human eye after using 12,000 photos of human embryos taken precisely 110 hours after fertilization to train an algorithm to discriminate between poor and good embryo quality.

The investigators said that each embryo was first assigned a grade by embryologists that considered various aspects of the embryo’s appearance. The investigators then performed a statistical analysis to correlate the embryo grade with the probability of a successful pregnancy outcome. Embryos were considered good quality if the chances were greater than 58 percent and poor quality if the chances were below 35%.

After training and validation, the algorithm was able to classify the quality of a new set of images with 97% accuracy.

Photo Credit: Tammy Bar-Shay

FDA authorizes Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine, as expected after an independent panel commissioned by the administration recommended its approval earlier this week. This is the second vaccine now authorized for use in the U.S. under EUA, after the Pfizer -BioNTech vaccine was approved last week.

Moderna’s vaccine could begin being administered to Americans by “Monday or Tuesday” next week, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci speaking to NBC’s Today show in a new interview. That’s in keeping with the timelines between the Pfizer EUA and the first patients actually receiving the vaccine last week.

Like Pfizer’s vaccine, Moderna’s is an mRNA therapy. That means that it contains no actual virus — just genetic instructions that tell a person’s body to create a specific protein. That protein is more or less identical to the one that SARS-CoV-2, the virus which causes COVID-19, uses to attach to a host’s cells and replicate. Moderna’s vaccine causes a person to create just the protein, which on its own is harmless, and then their natural defenses via their immune system react to that and develop a method for fighting it off. That defense system is “remembered” by the body, while the vaccine itself naturally dissolves after a brief time, leaving a person with immunity but nothing else.

The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, which has yet to be approved for use in the U.S., uses a weakened and modified common cold virus that doesn’t spread in humans to create the spike protein in recipients, resulting in the body generating its own immune response. That’s a much more tried-and-tested method for creating a vaccine, but both Moderna and Pfizer’s mRNA therapies have shown to be very effective in preliminary data from their large Phase 3 clinical trials.

FDA grants emergency use authorization for Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, distribution to begin within days

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has granted an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and its partner BioNTech, the New York Times first reported on Friday night, and later supported by The Wall Street Journal. This EUA follows a recommendation by an independent panel of experts commissioned by the FDA to review Pfizer’s application and provide a recommendation, which the panel unanimously supported earlier this week.

Following this authorization, shipment of the vaccine are expected to begin immediately, with 2.9 million doses in the initial shipment order. Patients in the category of highly vulnerable individuals, which include healthcare workers and senior citizens in long-term care facilities, are expected to begin receiving doses within just a few days not was the EUA is granted.

This approval isn’t a full certification by the U.S. therapeutics regulator, but it is an emergency measure that still requires a comprehensive review of the available information supplied by Pfizer based on its Phase 3 clinical trial, which covered a group of 44,000 volunteer participants. Pfizer found that its vaccine, which is an mRNA-based treatment, was 95% effective in its final analysis of the data resulting form the trial to date – and also found that safety data indicated no significant safety issues in patients who received the vaccine.

On top of the initial 2.9 million dose order, the U.S. intends to distribute around 25 million doses by the end of 2020, which could result in far fewer people actually vaccinated since the Pfizer course requires two innoculations for maximum efficacy. Most American shouldn’t expect the vaccine to be available until at least late Q1 or Q2 2021, given the pace of Pfizer’s production and the U.S. order volume.

Still, this is a promising first step, and a monumental achievement in terms of vaccine development turnaround time, since it’s been roughly eight months since work began on the Pfizer vaccine candidate. Moderna has also submitted an EUA for its vaccine candidate, which is also an mRNA treatment (which provides instructions to a person’s cells to produce effective countermeasures to the virus). That could follow shortly, meaning two vaccines might be available under EUA within the U.S. before the end of the year.

Elon Musk demonstrates Neuralink’s tech live using pigs with surgically implanted brain-monitoring devices

Elon Musk -founded Neuralink has made headlines over the past many years around it efforts to develop a new kind of interface between the human brain and computing devices. On Friday, the company provided a demo of the technology, and Musk kicked off the demo by saying that the purpose of the entire presentation was recruiting — not fundraising or any other kind of promotion.

“We’re not trying to raise money or do anything else, but the the main purpose is to convince great people to come work at Neuralink, and help us bring the product to fruition — make it affordable and reliable and and such that anyone who wants one can have one,” he said.

Musk then went on to say that the reason he wants to make it generally available is that just about everyone will have some kind of neurological problem over time, including memory loss, anxiety, brain damage, depression and a long list of other ailments. Of course, there’s no clear evidence that any of this long list of problems can be quickly and easily “solved” with any one solution, so it’s a bit challenging to see this as a reasonable end goal for the company.

The goal may be ambitious — and definitely subject to a lot of ethical and medical debate — but the technology that Musk actually demonstrated was much less so. Musk first noted that Neuralink had changed design since the reveal last year, with a smaller physical device profile that he said can be fully hidden under hair once installed in the skull. He had a physical device in-hand to show its size.

Image Credits: Neuralink

Musk then turned the audience’s attention to three pigs that were in attendance in nearby pens, with handlers nearby. The three pigs were one that was untreated, the second (“Gertrude”) was installed with a Neuralink device, called the “Link,” and the third had previously had one installed but then subsequently had it removed. Musk at first had trouble coaxing Gertrude to come out and perform for the small, socially distanced crowd in attendance (who were seated at bar-height tables as if they were at a comedy club). Eventually, however, he skipped Getrude to show that the pig who had her Link removed was very healthy and normal-looking.

Image Credits: Neuralink

Back to Gertrude, Musk showed a display that played a sound and showed a visual spike whenever the Link detected that Gertrude made contact to something with her snout while rooting around for food.

“For the initial device, it’s read/write in every channel with about 1024 channels, all-day battery life that recharges overnight and has quite a long range, so you can have the range being to your phone,” Musk said. “I should say that’s kind of an important thing, because this would connect to your phone, and so the application would be on your phone, and the Link communicating, by essentially Bluetooth low energy to the device in your head.”

Image Credits: Neuralink

Musk closed the prepared portion of the presentation by noting that the company had received a Breakthrough Device designation from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in July, and that the company is “preparing for first human implantation soon, pending required approvals and further safety testing.”

While the device demonstrated was only a read-device, receiving data from the signals in the pig’s brain, the plan is to provide both read and write capabilities with the goal of being able to address neurological issues as mentioned above. Musk also stressed that why he showed the pig which had had its implant removed safely was because the plan is to provide updates to the hardware over time as better versions become available. Ultimately, Musk said during a later Q&A that Neuralink hopes to get the cost down to somewhere in the thousand-dollar range, with a minimal cost for the hardware itself along the line of modern wearable devices.

Musk actually referred to the Neuralink devices as a “Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires” at multiple points during the presentation, which actually seems like a pretty dystopian proposition, depending on your perspective. Capabilities he teased eventually include the ability to summon your Tesla with a thought, and video game control interfaces — including complete control of Starcraft. Musk also said in the future he expected people with Link to be able to “save and replay memories,” adding the caveat that “this is obviously sounding increasingly like a Black Mirror episode, but well, I guess they’re pretty good at predicting.” He even went so far as to say that “you could potentially download [memories] into a robot body.”

The first clinical trial will focus on individuals with paraplegia or tetraplegia, resulting from cervical spinal cord injury. The plan for a first trial is to enroll a “small number” of these individuals in order to test the efficacy and safety of the technology.

A new FDA-authorized COVID-19 test doesn’t need a lab and can produce results in just 5 minutes

There’s a new COVID-19 test from healthcare technology maker Abbott that looks to be the fastest yet in terms of producing results, and that can do so on the spot right at point-of-care, without requiring a round trip to a lab. This test for the novel coronavirus causing the current global pandemic has received emergency clearance for use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and will begin production next week, with output of 50,000 per day possible starting next week.

The new Abbott ID NOW COVID-19 test uses the Abbott ID NOW diagnostics platform, which is essentially a lab-in-a-box that is roughly the size of a small kitchen appliance. It’s size, and the fact that it can produce either a positive result in just five minutes, or a negative one in under 15, mean that it could be a very useful means to extend coronavirus testing beyond its current availability to more places including clinics and doctor’s offices, and cut down on wait times both in terms of getting tested and receiving a diagnosis.

Unlike the rapid tests that have been used in other countries, and that received a new type of authorization under an FDA guideline that doesn’t confirm the accuracy fo the results, this rapid testing solution uses the molecular testing method, which works with saliva and mucus samples swabbed from a patient. This means that it works by identifying a portion of the virus’ DNA in a patient, which means it’s much better at detecting the actual presence of the virus during infection, whereas other tests that search the blood for antibodies that are used in point-of-care settings can only detect antibodies, which might be present in recovered patients who don’t actively have the virus.

The good news for availability of this test is that ID NOW, the hardware from Abbott that it runs on, already “holds the largest molecular point-of-care footprint in the U.S.,” and is “widely available” across doctor’s offices, urgent care clinics, emergency rooms and other medical facilities.

In total, Abbott now says that it believes it will produce 5 million tests in April, split between these new rapid tests and the lab tests that it received emergency use authorization for by the FDA on March 18.

Testing has been one of the early problems faced by the U.S. in terms of getting a handle on the coronavirus pandemic: The country has lagged behind other nations globally in terms of per capita tests conducted, which experts say has hampered its ability to properly track and trace the spread of the virus and its resulting respiratory disease. Patients have reported having to go to extreme lengths to receive a test, and endure long waits for results, even in cases where exposure was likely and their symptoms match the COVID-19 profile.

YC startup Felix wants to replace antibiotics with programmable viruses

Right now the world is at war. But this is no ordinary war. It’s a fight with an organism so small we can only detect it through use of a microscope — and if we don’t stop it, it could kill millions of us in the next several decades. No, I’m not talking about COVID-19, though that organism is the one on everyone’s mind right now. I’m talking about antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

You see, more than 700,000 people died globally from bacterial infections last year — 35,000 of them in the U.S. If we do nothing, that number could grow to 10 million annually by 2050, according to a United Nations report.

The problem? Antibiotic overuse at the doctor’s office or in livestock and farming practices. We used a lot of drugs over time to kill off all the bad bacteria — but it only killed off most, not all, of the bad bacteria. And, as the famous line from Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park goes, “life finds a way.”

Enter Felix, a biotech startup in the latest Y Combinator batch that thinks it has a novel approach to keeping bacterial infections at bay – viruses.

Phage killing bacteria in a petri dish

It seems weird in a time of widespread concern over the corona virus to be looking at any virus in a good light but as co-founder Robert McBride explains it, Felix’s key technology allows him to target his virus to specific sites on bacteria. This not only kills off the bad bacteria but can also halt its ability to evolve and once more become resistant.

But the idea to use a virus to kill off bacteria is not necessarily new. Bacteriophages, or viruses that can “infect” bacteria, were first discovered by an English researcher in 1915 and commercialized phage therapy began in the U.S. in the 1940’s through Eli Lilly and Company. Right about then antibiotics came along and Western scientists just never seemed to explore the therapy further.

However, with too few new solutions being offered and the standard drug model not working effectively to combat the situation, McBride believes his company can put phage therapy back at the forefront.

Already Felix has tested its solution on an initial group of 10 people to demonstrate its approach.

Felix researcher helping cystic fibrosis patient Ella Balasa through phage therapy

“We can develop therapies in less time and for less money than traditional antibiotics because we are targeting orphan indications and we already know our therapy can work in humans,” McBride told TechCrunch . “We argue that our approach, which re-sensitizes bacteria to traditional antibiotics could be a first line therapy.”

Felix plans to deploy its treatment for bacterial infections in those suffering from cystic fibrosis first as these patients tend to require a near constant stream of antibiotics to combat lung infections.

The next step will be to conduct a small clinical trial involving 30 people, then, as the scientific research and development model tends to go, a larger human trial before seeking FDA approval. But McBride hopes his viral solution will prove itself out in time to help the coming onslaught of antibiotic resistance.

“We know the antibiotic resistant challenge is large now and is only going to get worse,” McBride said. “We have an elegant technological solution to this challenge and we know our treatment can work. We want to contribute to a future in which these infections do not kill more than 10 million people a year, a future we can get excited about.”

Elon Musk’s Neuralink looks to begin outfitting human brains with faster input and output starting next year

Neuralink, the Elon Musk-led startup that the multi-entrepreneur founded in 2017, is working on technology that’s based around ‘threads’ which it says can be implanted in human brains with much less potential impact to the surrounding brain tissue vs. what’s currently used for today’s brain-computer interfaces. “Most people don’t realize, we can solve that with a chip,” Musk said to kick off Neuralink’s event, talking about some of the brain disorders and issues the company hopes to solve.

Musk also said that long-term Neuralink really is about figuring out a way to “achieve a sort of symbiosis with artificial intelligence.” “This is not a mandatory thing,” he added. “This is something you can choose to have if you want.”

For now, however, the aim is medical and the plan is to use a robot that Neuralink has created that operates somewhat like a “sewing machine” to implant this threads, which are incredibly thin I(like, between 4 and 6 μm, which means about one-third the diameter of the thinnest human hair), deep within a person’s brain tissue, where it will be capable of performing both read and write operations at very high data volume.

All of this sounds incredibly far-fetched, and to some extent it still is: Neuralink’s scientists told The New York Times in a briefing on Monday that the company has a “long way to go” before it can get anywhere near offering a commercial service. The main reason for breaking cover and talking more freely about what they’re working on, the paper reported, is that they’ll be better able to work out in the open and publish papers, which is definitely an easier mode of operation for something that requires as much connection with the academic and research community as this.

Neuralink1

Neuralink co-founder and president Max Hodak told the NYT that he’s optimistic Neuralink’s tech could theoretically see use somewhat soon in medical use, including potential applications enabling amputees to regain mobility via use of prosthetics and reversing vision, hearing or other sensory deficiencies. It’s hoping to actually begin working with human test subjects as early as next year, in fact, including via possible collaboration with neurosurgeons at Stanford and other institutions.

The current incarnation of Neuralink’s tech would involve drilling actual holes into a subject’s skull in order to insert the ultra thin threads, but future iterations will shift to using lasers instead to create tiny holes that are much less invasive and essentially not felt by a patient, Hodak told the paper. Working on humans next year with something that meets this description for a relatively new company might seem improbable, but Neuralink did demonstrate its technology used on a laboratory rat this week, with performance levels that exceed today’s systems in terms of data transfer. The data from the rat was gathered via a USB-C port in its head, and it provided about 10x more what the best current sensors can offer, according to Bloomberg.

Neurlalink’s advances vs. current BCI methods also include the combined thinness and flexibility of the ‘threads’ used, but one scientist wondered about their longevity when exposed to the brain, which contains a salt mix fluid that can damage and ultimately degrade plastics over time. The plan is also that the times electrodes implanted in the brain will be able to communicate wirelessly with chips outside the brain, providing real time monitoring with unprecedented freedom of motion, without any external wires or connections.

Elon Musk is bankrolling the majority of this endeavour as well as acting as its CEO, with $100 million of the $158 million its raised so far coming from the SpaceX and Tesla CEO. It has 90 employees thus far, and still seems to be hiring aggressively based on its minimal website (which basically only contains job ads). Elon Musk also noted at the outset of today’s presentation that the main reason for the event was in fact to recruit new talent.

US-China biotech startup XtalPi lands $15M from Google, Tencent and Sequoia

 Google continues to increase its presence in China after it joined Sequoia China and Tencent in a $15 million investment for XtalPi, a U.S.-China biotech firm that uses artificial intelligence and computing to accelerate the development of new drugs. The search giant remains blocked in China, but that hasn’t stopped it from making a series of moves in recent months. It is opening an… Read More

Crunch Report | AppDynamics CEO Talks Cisco Acquisition

AppDynamics CEO David Wadhwani and Cisco VP of IoT Rowan Trollope talk to us about the $3.7 billion acquisition, Alpahbet biotech moonshot lands $800 million in funding and a Snapchat Spectacles case melts while charging. All this on Crunch Report. Read More

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