Elon Musk trots out pigs in demo of Neuralink brain implants

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Elon Musk’s brain-machine interface company Neuralink showcased a pig with the company’s device at an event livestreamed on YouTube. One pig, Gertrude, had a device recording signals from an area of the brain linked to her snout. She’d had the implant for two months at the time of the demonstration.

As Gertrude’s snout touched things, an array of dots and a series of noises indicated when more neurons were firing. Pigs have large parts of their brains that are devoted to the snout, a sensitive sensing instrument.

The design of the Neuralink device has changed since it was unveiled last year, rendering the device itself hard to see on Gertrude. It is now coin-shaped, and meant to sit flush with the skull, rather than having a small module resting near the ear. It’s “like a Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires,” Musk said. A user can communicate with the device using Bluetooth Low Energy, and would pair with an app on someone’s phone, he said.

As with last year’s event, Musk said the primary purpose of the demonstration was recruiting. (Neuralink presently employs about 100 people, Musk said. Eventually he hopes to employ more than 10,000 people.) Merging human brains with AI is why Musk wants to create the devices. But the device hasn’t yet been tested in humans, though the US Food and Drug Administration designated it a breakthrough device, a program that would allow them to get feedback from the agency throughout the development process, Musk said in the presentation.

Screenshot from the Neuralink presentation

Neuralink didn’t invent brain-machine interfaces — they’ve been around and implanted in people since the first published report in 2006. The company’s main contribution to the technology is their thin, flexible wires, which are covered in electrodes to pick up brain activity.

The threads have more electrodes than other systems — which means more information — and they may not cause as much damage as stiff needles. However, foreign objects in the brain degrade over time, and smaller ones break down faster. One member of the team at tonight’s demonstration said that one of the main challenges for Neuralink was making sure the device could last for decades in a corrosive environment like the brain.

The other distinction is Musk’s ambition. He said at tonight’s event that the device could help solve any number of neurological problems, from memory loss to strokes to addiction, or monitor a users’s health and warn them if they’re having a heart attack. At last year’s event, he said that Neuralink could make the implementation process for the device as simple and safe as Lasik eye surgery; tonight, he said it could be done without general anesthesia in under an hour.

The first clinical trials will be in a small number of patients with severe spinal cord injuries, to make sure it works and is safe. Last year, Musk said he hoped to start clinical trials in people in 2020. Long term, Musk said they will be able to restore full motion in people with those types of injuries using a second implant on the spine.

But the most important thing the device might be able to do, Musk said, would let people achieve what he calls “AI symbiosis,” which allows the human brain to merge with an artificial intelligence. “Such that he future of the world is controlled by the combined will of the people of Earth — I think that that’s obviously gonna be the future that we want,” he said tonight.

Right now, the device is restricted to the surface of the brain — it doesn’t tunnel into deeper regions. Many important functions, such as movement, vision and hearing, happen on the brain’s surface.

Musk said the company is looking to recruit robotics, electrical and software engineers to work on the device and refine the surgical procedure for the implementation. There’s been a lot of turnover at the company since it launched in 2017, and only two members of the founding team still work at Neuralink.

Former employees told Stat News that the company was chaotic, and that researchers were under intense pressure to rush through projects. Scientists were sometimes given weeks to complete projects that should take months, for example. “They are building a medical device and a surgical approach to implant that medical device, and they’re approaching it with the use of a tech company — move fast and break things,” one employee said.

Musk said the device would be “quite expensive” when it first launches, but that he wants to get the price down to a few thousand dollars. “I think it should be possible to get it similar to Lasik,” he said.

Update August 28, 7:57 pm ET: Updated with additional comments from Musk.

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