Elon Musk shows Neuralink brain implant in pig

Neuralink’s brain-machine interface technology pushes electrodes into the brain and then uses a chip to communicate with computers outside of your skull.

Screenshot by Stephen Shankland / CNET

With a device surgically implanted in the skull of a pig named Gertrude, Elon Musk demonstrated his startup Neuralink’s technology to create a digital link between brains and computers. A wireless link from the Neuralink computing device showed the pig’s brain activity as it sniffed around a pen on stage Friday night.

The demo shows that the technology is much closer to realizing Musk’s sweeping ambitions than during a product launch in 2019, when Neuralink only showed photos of a rat with a Neuralink connected via a USB port. -VS. It’s still a long way from the truth, but Musk said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved testing for “breakthrough devices” in July.

Musk also showed a second-generation implant that was more compact and fitted into a small cavity carved into the skull. Tiny electrode “wires” penetrate the outer surface of the brain, sensing an electrical impulse from nerve cells that shows the brain is at work. In keeping with Neuralink’s long-term plans, threads are designed to communicate back, with their own computer-generated signals.

“It’s like a Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires,” Musk said of the device.

It communicates with brain cells through 1,024 thin electrodes that penetrate the outer layer of the brain. Then there is a Bluetooth link to an outside computing device, although the company is investigating another radio technology that it can use to dramatically increase the number of data links.


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While the pig demonstration showed neural activity to be broadcast wirelessly to a computer, it did not reveal any of Neuralink’s long-term ambitions, such as a computer usefully communicating with a brain or a computer understanding what really mean spikes in neuronal activity.

Medical start, science fiction end for Neuralink

Neuralink has a medical purpose to begin with, such as helping people cope with brain and spinal cord injuries or birth defects. The technology could, for example, help paraplegics who have lost the ability to move or smell due to spinal cord injury, and early human uses will be aimed at improving conditions such as paraplegia or quadriplegia.

“If you can feel what people want to do with their limbs, you can make a second implant where the spinal injury occurred and create a neural shunt,” Musk said. “I am convinced that in the long term it will be possible to restore the movement of someone’s whole body.”

But Musk’s view is much more radical, including ideas like “conceptual telepathy, “where two people can communicate electronically while thinking of each other instead of writing or speaking. The long-term goal is to prepare for a future where artificial intelligence much smarter than humans is exterminating us.

Musk envisions people using Neuralink to connect to their own digital AI incarnations so that “the future is controlled by the combined will of the peoples of Earth,” Musk said. “From an existential threat perspective, it will be important to achieve a good AI symbiosis.”

Backup and restore your memories

“The future is going to be strange,” Musk said, discussing the sci-fi uses of Neuralink. “In the future, you will be able to save and replay memories,” he said. “You can basically store your memories as a backup and restore the memories. You can potentially download them into a new body or into a robot body.”

He is aware that some people will also see problems in Neuralink. “It’s more and more like an episode of the Black Mirror,” Musk said, referring to the dystopian TV series.

Musk also discussed infrared, ultraviolet or x-ray vision using digital camera data. “Over time, we could give someone some great vision,” Musk said.

Gertrude the Neuralink compatible pig roots through the straw during a demonstration of brain-computer linkage technology. Brain activity is manifested by blue tips.

Jackson Ryan / CNET

Neuralink is in the process of building a robotic installer which is ultimately designed to handle the entire surgical installation process. This includes opening the scalp, removing part of the skull, inserting the hundreds of “wire” electrodes with an accompanying computer chip, and then closing the incision. The installer is designed to dodge blood vessels to prevent bleeding, Musk said.

As with Fitbit, Apple Watch, and other wearable tech, Musk sees a health benefit from Neuralink in addition to direct brain-to-computer communications. Neuralink chips can measure temperature, pressure, and movement, data that could alert you to a heart attack or stroke, Musk said.

Computers need power, and the chip in Neuralink’s skull obtains it by wirelessly charging through the skin, Musk said.

Previous work by Neuralink

Since Neuralink launch event last year, Musk and Neuralink published a scientific paper, in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, in October. The article described the development of their robotic device, an arm capable of gently inserting hundreds of fine threads, about a tenth the width of a human hair, into the brain. It is sometimes referred to as the “sewing machine” and is capable of inserting about six threads per minute, each made of flexible plastic and fitted with 192 electrodes.

The company’s early research focused on interfacing with rodent brains. In the October article, Musk and Neuralink detailed two Neuralink systems, A and B, tested in rats. The former can insert over 1,500 electrodes and the latter 3,000. The article describes a free-moving rat attached to System B, with a USB-C slot protruding from its head, but there is no clear indication that Neuralink settled on the best place for the electrodes.

In the article, Musk and Neuralink acknowledge that “significant technological challenges must be overcome before a high-bandwidth device is suitable for clinical application.”

This diagram shows Neuralink v0.9 link, the device that can be embedded in a hole drilled in a skull.  On the left are the "son" which lead to electrodes in the brain.

This diagram shows Neuralink v0.9 link, the device that can be embedded in a hole drilled in a skull. On the left are the “wires” that lead to the electrodes in the brain.

Screenshot by Stephen Shankland / CNET

The rodent work is impressive, but what caught people’s attention last year was Musk’s claim that a monkey was “able to control a computer with its brain.” No evidence was provided in the JMIR document to support this claim, and Musk did not mention it on Friday.

Neuralink problem?

Tuesday, Medical industry news site Stat detailed the turmoil at Neuralink, with five former employees introducing themselves to describe “a chaotic internal culture” and describing it as a “pressure cooker” environment.

The report also detailed accelerated timelines, noting that efforts to advance the technology have led to failures in animal experiments. A former employee said Neuralink went from rodent experiments to primates faster than expected in medical science.

Neuralink responded to Stat’s claims in the article, suggesting that some of them were “partially or completely wrong”.

Holes in your skull? Is that so?

The success of Neuralink will depend on our ability to convince ourselves to install chips in our brains and change the nerve impulses that make us who we are. It’s a tough sell – especially given Neuralink’s competitors who prefer non-invasive headsets.

“There is a segment of people who are enthusiastic about invasive BMI,” including members of the transhumanist movement, Max Newlon, CEO of BrainCo, said, referring to the brain-machine interface. “Non-invasive BMI technology could be a bridge to the future that people will accept today.”

“The safety and health risks of invasive implants are significant,” added Sid Kouider, Founder and CEO of NextMind, a competitor of Neuralink. Problems include infection, inflammation, and follow-up surgery to adjust the placement of the electrodes, he said. However, he credits Neuralink with the stimulation of interest in neural interfaces.

In addition to leading Neuralink, Musk is Managing Director of You’re here, Which one is the rise of a global electric vehicle company; SpaceX, which launches spacecraft and flies launch rockets back to Earth for reuse; and the Boring business, which aims to route vehicle traffic through tunnels.

Musk is running out of steam, but he’s also delivered on key promises like producing compelling electric vehicles and lowering satellite launch costs. Musk has a knack for picking tough but achievable business problems. However, to be successful, Neuralink will have to convince scientists and doctors as well as us.


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About Hector Hedgepeth

Hector Hedgepeth

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