Elon Musk’s brain-machine interface company, Neuralink, conducted a live demo of its technology on Friday, showing a coin-sized device without wires.
The Tesla and SpaceX CEO brought along three pigs, who had varying levels of interest in cooperating. Eventually, the audience was shown real-time neural signals from one of the pigs, which Musk named Gertrude. According to Musk, Gertrude has had the implant for about two months.
The start-up, which launched in 2016 and is funded primarily by Musk, said it is designing tiny flexible ‘threads’ that are 10 times thinner than a human hair with the goal of treating brain injuries and trauma, along with someday enabling symbiosis between humans and artificial intelligence. The design has been tested on at least 19 different animals with robots with around an 87% success rate, according to the venture’s presentation last year.
Musk described it on Friday as “like a Fitbit in your skull.”
“We will show neurons firing in real-time on August 28th. The matrix in the matrix,” Musk tweeted at the end of July. Back in July 2019, he said that he hoped to have an implant in a human patient by the end of 2020.
Along the way, Musk has made some highly ambitious claims about the technology’s potential.
Installing a chip to replace a small portion of the human skull, for instance, could restore limb function, improve human movement, resolve issues with eyesight and hearing, and help with diseases like Parkinson’s, the company claims. At the Friday presentation, Musk listed a number of different conditions that Neuralink is currently focused on, including memory loss, blindness and paralysis.
He said the process of “getting a Link” will not require general anesthesia and he hopes that a robot will “do the entire surgery” in about an hour. Musk said that people who get the Neuralink device are left with a tiny scar after the electrodes are inserted in the brain — and if done well, there won’t be any blood. He described it as about the size of a large coin.
As its name implies, the roles of neuron activities are very important to Neuralink’s technology. The group’s long-term goal of obtaining human symbiosis with artificial intelligence (AI) begins by connecting electrodes throughout the brain and reading its neuron signals en masse. Gathering huge amounts of data from the signals would eventually teach Neuralink’s software how the brain uses them to communicate with the rest of the body, ultimately leading to a certain amount of replication and direction.
The company has experienced its fair share of struggles along the way, with former employees detailing to Stat News rushed timelines and slow scientific progress.
Neuralink and any would-be competitors will have major challenges to overcome, according to experts in the space.
Chad Bouton, a vice president of advanced engineering at the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research, told CNBC by phone that there are safety concerns with any kind of invasive technology, including possible infections with any implant. “It’s non-trivial,” he said by phone.
Bouton hopes that Musk’s group will focus, at least initially, on people with the greatest need for this technology, including people who have severe disabilities. For people with conditions like ALS, a progressive nervous system disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, such technology can open up new ways to move and speak. He also said that this kind of technology probably won’t be used electively by a mainstream audience for more than a decade.
“There will be ethical and safety issues to work through, and for a long time, it’s likely that you’ll have to have a real medical need to access this technology,” he said.