When thinking of the future and the radical cutting-edge technology that might define such an era, one might picture things like flying cars, casual space travel, and the close coupling of humans and machines, allowing us to exceed the limits of our own bodies and achieve what was previously thought unimaginable. Even with the vast strides in technology that have been made in the past few decades, it is difficult to think that any of this might be possible in the present or near future. However, with the establishment of Neuralink, those radical visions of future tech appear to be more achievable than ever before.
Founded by Elon Musk of Tesla and SpaceX notoriety, Neuralink is a company that seeks to develop implantable brain-machine interfaces to connect patients and computers, especially patients who are mobility-impaired, allowing them to use technology simply with their minds. It proposes the use of a surgical robots to implant a device the size of a large coin, called the Link, into the skull. The Link is connected to dozens of fine neural threads containing thousands of electrodes along their length. These threads must then be embedded into the brain with a precision that only Neuralink’s surgical machinery can achieve. In fact, at a Neuralink demonstration event in August of 2020, a video of the thread embedding process was shown on a brain, highlighting that even bleeding can be avoided by the robot’s careful placement of the threads.
The inserted electrodes then pick up neural activity from actions performed by the patient, sending the signals to a computer which then decodes and documents the patterns of activity associated with certain actions. Within minutes, the computer can predict the firing patterns of neurons when the decoded functions are performed, allowing these functions to be carried out by simply reading the patterns.
An example of this being carried out in a live subject is the case of Pager, a nine-year-old Macaque who received the Link implant. In a video titled ‘Monkey MindPong’ on the official Neuralink YouTube channel, Pager demonstrates the calibration of his Link, by moving around an icon with a joystick to hover over indicated tiles on a computer screen. The implant then reads and records the neural spikes associated with Pager’s movements and once these patterns are documented, he is able to move the icon without the use of the joystick.
The video then goes on to show Pager playing the classic game of Pong with only the use of his brain. With the Link, he is able to move the two-dimensional paddle on the same computer screen to repeatedly deflect the pixelated ball. Reassuringly, it is also shown that Pager is a willing participant, being motivated by a constant supply of banana smoothie and rewarded by an actual banana at the end of the clip.
While it is impressive to watch Pager play this simple video game without a controller, it is not a particularly novel feat. Another company, Cyberkinetics, had begun work on their own brain-machine interface called BrainGate in 2002, fourteen years before the establishment of Neuralink. Now owned by Braingate, Inc., this technology also employs the use of superfine electrodes implanted into the brain, albeit at a much lower number than the device introduced by Neuralink, totalling just one hundred electrodes. A successful study published in Nature in 2006 demonstrated the use of a device that allowed tetraplegic patient, Matthew Nagle, to perform a variety of computer-assisted functions. This implanted BrainGate chip allowed him to control a television, prosthetic limb, open emails and draw on a screen using his brain, not unlike the Link.
So, what makes it revolutionary? Why is Neuralink such a hot topic now when companies like Cyberkinetics and Braingate, have been working on incredibly similar devices long before Neuralink was conceived? It could be chalked up to the fame of its founder, Elon Musk, who regularly plays the part of eccentric billionaire through his bizarre social media postings to tens of millions of followers online. And as the publicly known head of companies such as Tesla, Inc., SpaceX Corp., and OpenAI LP, Musk seemingly presents himself as an ambassador to the future—a man who is focused on furthering today’s technology by investing some of his sizable accumulated wealth into this research. As a result, it might not be so surprising that the media and his fans choose to fixate on Neuralink, rather than faceless companies like Braingate.
In addition to this, Musk has made very ambitious claims about the future applications of the Link. During the aforementioned event in 2020, Musk predicted that the Link could eventually restore complete motor function in quadriplegic or tetraplegic patients, simply by transmitting the neural patterns associated with movement to another device at the base of the patients’ spine. He also alleged that the Link would allow people to store and replay memories. But while these features seem like something straight out of a science fiction movie, no human studies involving the use of the Link have been published. In fact, the only public displays of its successes have been in pigs, which showed that the implant could be safely inserted and removed and that neural activity could be predicted.
Of course, it can be argued that the design of the Link is revolutionary. And to its credit, this is true— its neural threads contain over ten times the amount of electrodes that BrainGate’s technology boasts, with the added feature of being wireless, small, and entirely contained within the patient’s skull. To say that it is a marvel of modern engineering would be an understatement. However, until Neuralink can demonstrate the use of its device in patients and begin to make progress towards Musk’s outlandish claims, it will remain just another participant in the widely populated field of brain-computer interface research.
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