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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.

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.