IIt’s been six years since Tesla, SpaceX (and now Twitter) CEO Elon Musk co-founded brain control interface (BCI) startup Neuralink. It’s been three years since the company first demonstrated its “sewing machine-like” implantation robot, two years since the company put its technology in the heads of pigs — and just over 19 months since they did the same thing in primates. an effort that was said to have killed 15 out of 23 test subjects. After a month-long delay in October, Neuralink held its third “Show and Tell” event on Wednesday, where CEO Elon Musk announced, “We think we should probably be able to use a Neuralink in a human in about six months.” to install.”
Neuralink went through tumultuous times in its most recent status update of April 2021: The company’s co-founder, Max Hodak, quietly quit shortly after that event, though he said he’s still a “huge cheerleader” for Neuralink’s success. That vote of confidence was shaken last August after Musk reportedly approached Synchron, Neuralink’s main competitor, as an investment opportunity.
In early February, Neuralink confirmed that monkeys had died during prototype testing of its BCI implants at the University of California, Davis Primate Center, but denied allegations of animal cruelty by the Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine. Musk indirectly responded to those allegations on Wednesday.
“Before we even think about putting a device in an animal, we do everything we can with rigorous laboratory testing. We’re not unconcerned about putting these devices in animals,” he said. “We are extremely cautious and whenever we implant the device – whether in a sheep, a pig or a monkey – we want it to be confirmatory and not exploratory.”
In July, Synchron Neuralink hit the market when doctors at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York successfully installed the company’s one-and-a-half inch device in a person living with ALS. The patient who has lost their ability to move and communicate should be able to use the device to surf the internet and send text messages to translate their thoughts into computer commands. That same month, Musk’s affair with a Neuralink executive, who is now pregnant with her twins, was also exposed.
Neuralink is still working to obtain FDA approval for its implant, although the company was awarded the agency’s Breakthrough Device Designation in July 2020. This program gives patients and caregivers “more timely access” to promising treatments and medical devices by rapidly tracking their development and approval testing. As of September 2022, the FDA has granted this designation to 728 medical devices.
The FDA also updated its best practice guidance regarding clinical and nonclinical BCI testing in 2021. “The field of implanted BCI devices is rapidly evolving from fundamental neuroscientific discoveries to translational applications and market access,” the agency said in its May guidance. “Implanted BCI devices have the potential to bring benefits to people with severe disabilities by enhancing their ability to interact with their environment and consequently provide new independence in daily living.”
“In a lot of ways, it’s like a Fitbit in your skull, with tiny wires,” Musk said of Neuralink’s device during the 2021 livestream event. The device relies on up to 1,024 5-micron diameter leads “sewn” into a patient’s gray matter to make connections with the surrounding neurons, provide high-resolution scanning of the brain’s electrical emissions, and between analog electrical impulses and digital to translate computer code. At least in theory. So far, Neuralink has only gotten a monkey to play pong without a joystick.
“In a way, we’re all already cyborgs,” Musk quipped in his opening remarks, “since your phone and computer are extensions of yourself.” However, these devices present significant limitations on our ability to communicate, he argued. “When you interact with a phone, it’s limited by the speed at which you can move your thumbs or the speed at which you can speak into your phone.” He notes that this method only “tens, maybe hundreds ” can transfer bits of data per second, while “a computer can communicate at gigabit, terabits per second”.
“This is the fundamental limitation that I think we need to address to mitigate the long-term risk of artificial intelligence,” he said gullibly.
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