Elon Musk has revealed his company Neuralink‘s brain-computer device for the first time, after keeping the project and its developments close to a secret. In an announcement on August 28th, Neuralink showed off prototypes of its brain implant interface and demonstrated on pigs that already had the devices implanted.
The device looks similar to a coin and has incredibly thin wires coming from one side of it. It is built to be implanted in the skull, with the wires incorporated a few millimeters into the surface of the brain. Those wires can, therefore, detect when neurons are moving or emit electrical signs – Musk even showed a video of neurons responding to the electrodes.
Neuralink’s Brain Implant Device
The Neuralink team brought three pigs to demonstrate the device: the first, Joyce, had no brain implant, while the second, named Gertrude, had an implanted device that tracked neurons in her snout.
On a screen, Musk displayed live signals from Gertrude’s device as she rooted around, generated when she carried out any activity. The third pig, Dorothy, had had an implant installed and then removed.
“What Dorothy illustrates is that you can put in the Neuralink, remove it, and be healthy, happy, and indistinguishable from a normal pig,” Musk said.
“The challenging part that they’ve pulled off is that the animal is happy-looking and walking around and acting normal, and the data is being relayed wirelessly,” says Timir Datta-Chaudhuri at the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research in New York. “Other people that might have done something similar usually have the animal on an operating table under anesthesia with wires coming from its brain.”
Although this is rather impressive, Datta-Chaudhuri says, it is still not enough to prove the devices are safe in any way.
“They downplayed the potential damage to the brain, but that damage is sometimes not easily observable even in humans, let alone pigs,” Datta-Chaudhuri says. “You don’t know if the pig now has a slur or the other pigs aren’t really socializing with it because it’s acting weird.”
Throughout the online conference in which the announcement was made, Neuralink has expressed its hopes for the brain implant device, saying it could eventually help restore vision for people with eye injuries, as well as limiting pain, recording memories, and telepathy.
Some of these aims are more realistic than others, Datta-Chaudhuri says; for instance, Musk talked about bypassing spinal injuries to restore movement for paralyzed individuals. Similar devices have managed to achieve this, so it is not eccentric to expect the Neuralink interface to do the same. Overall, Musk says the purpose of the whole event is to find human testers.
However, a feat like reading memory or thought would ask for intricate and detailed understanding of the brain that we simply do not have yet, as well as advanced technology to match it, Datta-Chaudhuri says.
“I feel like there’s still a lot that they have to learn, and it’s going to be an uphill battle for them,” he says. “But this snowball might get rolling and turn into something bigger, simply because of the advantage of the brand and having Elon Musk attached to it, that social spotlight.”
In addition, having access to someone’s memories and thoughts with today’s high vulnerability in technology seems like a bad idea. So far, scientists have warned of this kind of human-computer merging, but seemingly to no end.