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Elon Musk’s Neuralink wants to embed microchips in people’s skulls and get robots to perform brain surgery

Elon Musk

Elon Musk.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Neuralink is one of Elon Musk’s strange and futuristic portfolio of companies.
Neuralink developing neural interface technology — a.k.a. putting microchips into people’s brains.
The technology could help study and treat neurological disorders. 
Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Elon Musk is known for his high-profile companies like Tesla and SpaceX, but the billionaire also has a handful of unusual ventures. One them, he says, he started to one day achieve “symbiosis” between the human brain and artificial intelligence.Neuralink is Musk’s neural interface technology company. The company is building a device that could be embedded in a person’s brain, where it could both record brain activity and potentially stimulate it. Musk has compared the technology to a “FitBit in your skull.”While Musk likes to talk up his futuristic vision for the technology, the tech has plenty of near-term potential medical applications.Here’s everything you need to know about Neuralink:

Neuralink was founded under-the-radar in 2016.

Neuralink first became publicly known in 2017 when the Wall Street Journal reported on its existence.The company’s first major public outing didn’t come until 2019, when Elon Musk and other members of the executive team showed off Neuralink’s designs in a livestreamed presentation. 

Neuralink is developing two bits of equipment. The first is a chip that would be implanted in a person’s skull, with electrodes fanning out into their brain.

The chip sits behind the ear, while electrodes are threaded into the brain.

Neuralink/YouTube

The chip Neuralink is developing is about the size of a coin, and would be embedded in a patients’ skull. From the chip an array of tiny wires, each roughly 20 times thinner than a human hair, fan out into the patient’s brain.The wires are equipped with 1,024 electrodes which are able to both monitor brain activity  and, theoretically, electrically stimulate the brain. This data is all transmitted wirelessly via the chip to computers where it can be studied by researchers.

The second is a robot that could automatically implant the chip.

Neuralink surgical robot.

Woke Studios

The robot would work by using a stiff needle to punch the flexible wires emanating from a Neuralink chip into a person’s brain, a bit like a sewing machine.Neuralink released a video showcasing the robot in January 2021.Musk has claimed the machine could make implanting Neuralink’s electrodes as easy as LASIK eye surgery. While this is a bold claim, neuroscientists previously told Insider in 2019 that the machine has some very promising features.Professor Andrew Hires highlighted a feature, which would automatically adjust the needle to compensate for the movement of a patient’s brain, as the brain moves during surgery along with a person’s breathing and heartbeat.The robot as it currently stands is eight feet tall, and while Neuralink is developing its underlying technology its design was crafted by Woke Studios.

In 2020, the company showed off one of its chips working in a pig named Gertrude during a live demo.

The Neuralink device in Gertrude’s brain transmitted data live during the demo as she snuffled around.

Neuralink/YouTube

The demonstration was proof of concept, and showed how the chip was able to accurately predict the positioning of Gertrude’s limbs when she was walking on a treadmill, as well as recording neural activity when the pig snuffled about for food. Musk said the pig had been living with the chip embedded in her skull for two months.”In terms of their technology, 1,024 channels is not that impressive these days, but the electronics to relay them wirelessly is state-of-the-art, and the robotic implantation is nice,” said Professor Andrew Jackson, an expert in neural interfaces at Newcastle University.”This is solid engineering but mediocre neuroscience,” he said.Jackson told Insider following the 2020 presentation that the wireless relay from the Neuralink chip could potentially have a big impact on the welfare of animal test subjects in science, as most neural interfaces currently in use on test animals involve wires poking out through the skin.”Even if the technology doesn’t do anything more than we’re able to do at the moment — in terms of number of channels or whatever — just from a welfare aspect for the animals, I think if you can do experiments with something that doesn’t involve wires coming through the skin, that’s going to improve the welfare of animals,” he said.

The company went a step further with its animal demonstrations in April 2021, when it showed off a monkey playing video games with its mind.

Neuralink released video of a macaque monkey named Pager playing video games such as “Pong” for banana-smoothie rewards. Pager played the games using a joystick that was disconnected from the games console, meaning he was controlling the cursor using his brain signals as his arm moved.

Elon Musk likes to boast Neuralink can let monkeys control computers with their brain signals, but neuroscientists don’t see this as a big deal.

Elon Musk monkey

Vachira Vachira/NurPhoto via Getty Images/Pool/Getty Images

Elon Musk excitedly announced back in 2019 presentation that the company had successfully implanted its chip into a monkey. “A monkey has been able to control a computer with its brain, just FYI,” he said, which appeared to take Neuralink president Max Hodak by surprise. “I didn’t realize we were running that result today, but there it goes,” said Hodak.Musk re-iterated the claim in February 2021, two months ahead of the video demonstration. Neuroscientists speaking to Insider in 2019 said that while the claim might grab the attention of readers, they did not find it surprising or even particularly impressive.”The monkey is not surfing the internet. The monkey is probably moving a cursor to move a little ball to try to match a target,”said Professor Andrew Hires, an assistant professor of neurobiology at the University of California said in 2019.Implanting primates with neural-brain interfaces that let them control objects on screens has been done before. Professor Andrew Jackson of the University of Newcastle told Insider in April 2021 researchers first pioneered this kind of tech in 2002 — but arguably its origins go all the way back to the 1960s. 

Although none of the tech Neuralink has showcased so far has been particularly groundbreaking, neuroscientists are impressed with how well it’s been able to bundle up existing technologies.

Elon Musk presenting during the 2020 demo.

Neuralink YouTube

“All the technology that he showed has been already developed in some way or form, […] Essentially what they’ve done is just package it into a nice little form that then sends data wirelessly,” Dr. Jason Shepherd, an associate professor of neurobiology at the University of Utah, told Insider following the 2020 demonstration.”If you just watched this presentation, you would think that it’s coming out of nowhere, that Musk is doing this magic, but in reality, he’s really copied and pasted a lot of work from many, many labs that have been working on this,” he added.

Elon Musk has said human testing could start by the end of this year, but he also said that last year.

Britta Pedersen-Pool/Getty Images

Elon Musk said during an appearance on the “Joe Rogan Experience” podcast in May 2020 that Neuralink could begin testing on human subjects within a year. He made the same claim during an interview on Clubhouse in February 2021.Previously in 2019 Musk said the company hoped to get a chip into a human patient by the end of 2020.Experts voiced doubt about this timeline at the time, as part of safety testing a neural interface device involves implanting it in an animal test subject (normally a primate) and leaving it there for an extended amount of time to test its longevity — as any chip would have to stay in a human patient’s brain for a lifetime.”You can’t accelerate that process. You just have to wait — and see how long the electrodes last. And if the goal is for these to last decades, it’s hard to imagine how you’re going to be able to test this without waiting long periods of time to see how well the devices perform,” Jacob Robinson, a neuroengineer at Rice University, told STAT News in 2019.

In the near-term, a chip in someone’s brain could help treat neurological disorders like Parkinson’s.

Close-up footage of the needle on Neuralink’s brain surgery robot.

Neuralink

Improved neural interface technology like Neuralink’s could help better study and treat severe neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.Prof. Andrew Hires told Insider another application could be allowing people to control robotic prostheses with their minds.”The first application you can imagine is better mental control for a robotic arm for someone who’s paralyzed,” Hires said in a 2019 interview with Insider, saying that the electrodes in a patient’s brain could potentially reproduce the sensation of touch, allowing the patient to exert finer motor control over a prosthetic limb.

The company hinted its chip’s first real-world application would be giving quadriplegic people the ability to control phones and laptop.

Neuralink announced it had raised a $205 million series C funding round from investors including Google’s GV (formerly Google Ventures) on July 29, 2021.As part of its announcement, the company said its chip’s first commercial application could be to help quadriplegic people. Quadriplegic is paralysis in all four limbs.”The first indication this device is intended for is to help quadriplegics regain their digital freedom by allowing users to interact with their computers or phones in a high bandwidth and naturalistic way. The funds from the round will be used to take Neuralink’s first product to market and accelerate the research and development of future products,” Neuralink said in a blog post.

Elon Musk also says in the long-term the chip could be used to meld human consciousness with artificial intelligence — though experts are skeptical of this.

Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Although Musk has touted the near-term applications of Neuralink, he often links the company up with his fears about artificial intelligence. Musk has said that he thinks humanity will be able to achieve “symbiosis with artificial intelligence” using technology developed by Neuralink.Musk told “Artificial Intelligence” podcast host Lex Fridman in 2019 that Neuralink was “intended to address the existential risk associated with digital superintelligence.””We will not be able to be smarter than a digital supercomputer, so, therefore, if you cannot beat ’em, join ’em,” Musk added.Musk has made lots of fanciful claims about the enhanced abilities Neuralink could confer. In 2020 Musk said people would “save and replay memories” like in “Black Mirror,” or telepathically summon their car.Experts have expressed doubts about these claims. “Not to say that that won’t happen, but I think that the underlying neuroscience is much more shaky. We understand much less about how those processes work in the brain, and just because you can predict the position of the pig’s leg when it’s walking on a treadmill, that doesn’t then automatically mean you’ll be able to read thoughts,” Prof. Andrew Jackson told Insider in 2020.In 2019 Prof. Andrew Hires said Musk’s claims about merging with AI is where he goes off into “aspirational fantasy land.”

Musk’s also made dubious claims about its medical applications. At one point he also claimed the technology could “solve autism.”

During an appearance on the “Artificial Intelligence” podcast with Lex Fridman in November 2019, Elon Musk said Neuralink could in future “solve a lot of brain-related diseases,” and named autism and schizophrenia as examples.Autism is classified as a developmental disorder, not a disease, and the World Health Organization describes schizophrenia as a mental disorder.

One neuroscientist told Insider there are big ethical problems with the idea of performing brain surgery for anything other than essential treatment.

Dr. Rylie Green of Imperial College London told Insider in 2019 that the notion of performing brain surgery on a healthy person is deeply troubling.”To get any of these devices into your brain […] is very, very high-risk surgery,” she said. “People do it because they have severe limitations and there is a potential there to improve their life. Doing it for fun is not a great idea,” she added.

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