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Neuralink brain chip: What is Elon Musk’s plan to merge humans with computers and how will it help?

System lets people control devices ‘just by thinking’, controversial billionaire claims

Andrew Griffin
Thursday 21 March 2024 09:06 GMT
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Elon Musk Announces Neuralink Wireless Brain Chip Implant

Elon Musk has said his brain-computer interface company, Neuralink, has implanted its first device into humans.

Eventually, Mr Musk hopes that the system can be used to merge humans with computers, allowing them to interact with artificial intelligence simply by thinking, for instance.

But for now it is seemingly being used on people with quadriplegia, to allow them to interact with devices simply by thinking.

Mr Musk says that the first person in history to receive one of Neuralink’s brain chips in their head has now done so. While he shared little about that test, he has discussed his grand plans for the company in the past.

What is the brain chip?

On Neuralink’s website, it describes the new study as a “groundbreaking investigational medical device trial for our fully-implantable, wireless brain-computer interface”, which “aims to evaluate the safety of our implant and surgical robot, and assess the initial functionality of our BCI for enabling people with quadriplegia to control external devices with their thoughts”.

In the study, people will receive a “small, cosmetically invisible implant in a part of the brain that plans movements”. It is built to interpret the activity in their brain, so that they can use a computer or smartphone by simply “intending to move”.

That system is implanted in the head using a robot that is built specifically to do that task, Neuralink has said in the past. That seems to be something like a sewing machine that places probes – made up of electrodes connected with wires – on the brain.

Mr Musk made similar claims on Twitter after announcing the first implant. The system is called “Telepathy”, he said.

“Enables control of your phone or computer, and through them almost any device, just by thinking,” he wrote on X, formerly Twitter. “Initial users will be those who have lost the use of their limbs.

“Imagine if Stephen Hawking could communicate faster than a speed typist or auctioneer. That is the goal.”

Is the first trial a success?

It isn’t quite clear yet. Elon Musk has said very little about it – though has suggested it appears to be going well.

He said that the first person the study was “recovering well” and that “initial results show promising neuron spike detection”.

But experts said that it may be some time before we know whether the system works or not.

“I expect Neuralink will want to give the participant time to recover before they start training their system with the participant,” said Anne Vanhoestenberghe, professor of active implantable medical devices at King’s College London.

“We know Elon Musk is very adept at generating publicity for his company, so we may expect announcements as soon as they begin testing, although true success in my mind should be evaluated in the long-term, by how stable the interface is over time, and how much it benefits the participant.””

Where did Neuralink come from?

Neuralink was founded in 2016, and Mr Musk announced it a year later. A Wall Street Journal report then suggested the company was working to integrate humans with machines and especially AI – but that the first uses would be more focused, looking at conditions such as epilepsy and depression.

Neuralink is one of Mr Musk’s smaller, more future-facing projects, which also once included ChatGPT-creators OpenAI. It is one of a range of companies working at the cutting edge of brain-computer interfaces, or BCIs, which aim to allow humans to communicate directly with machines.

In the years since it was founded, Neuralink has faced some backlash, with reports of unhappy staff and questions over the company’s animal testing. But it has also announced some breakthroughs – including work on monkeys.

What does Elon Musk want to do with Neuralink?

Mr Musk has grand plans for the company: he has talked about it in science fiction terms, and speculated about the possibility of merging human thought with AI. For now, however, the company seems to be concentrating on more modest goals, such as helping people with specific neurological conditions.

The SpaceX and Twitter chief executive often tends to run his companies this way. SpaceX, for instance, is part of a wider plan to allow humanity to live on different planets – but for now it is focusing on the more concrete task of putting rockets into space.

What has happened so far?

Neuralink has seemingly had some success in testing on animals. It has shown the system being used to allow a monkey to play Pong, for instance – a feat that had already been achieved by other researchers but which nonetheless suggests that Neuralink is making progress.

Away from Neuralink, scientists have made significant progress in connecting people’s brain to devices. But experts caution that we are still some time from those being easily or commonly available.

“In recent research trials (not related to Neuralink), scientists have been able to implant brain-spine interfaces which help people with paralysis to walk and other work shows promising results in computers interpreting brain waves and brain scans to allow people who can’t speak to communicate,” said Tara Spires-Jones, president of the British Neuroscience Association.

“However, most of these interfaces require invasive neurosurgery and are still in experimental stages thus it will likely be many years before they are commonly available.”

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