After operating in stealth mode for the past two years, Neuralink, the brain-machine interface startup co-founded by SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk, has revealed some of the innovations that it has been developing. The company also announced that it is aiming to start implanting devices in humans by 2020, starting with paralyzed individuals who could then control phones or computers through their brain-machine implants.
Neuralink focused on two innovations on Tuesday’s presentation. The first involved flexible “threads” that are incredibly thin, measuring between 4 and 6 μm or about 1/3 the diameter of human hair. These threads are capable of transferring high volumes of data, with a white paper published by the company hinting at “as many as 3,072 electrodes per array distributed across 96 threads.” With the threads being incredibly thin, they would not damage the brain.
Another key technology revealed by Neuralink on its recent presentation was a custom made robot designed to embed implants into the brain. Thanks to computer vision and lenses, the robot will be able to place implants on patients without hitting or damaging blood vessels, reducing damage to the brain and scar tissue. Neuralink researcher Philip Sabes noted that “because these things are so thin and flexible, the idea is that they move with the tissue instead of tearing the tissue.”
Neuralink has performed at least 19 surgeries on animals with its robots, and so far, the machines have successfully placed the threads about 87% of the time. One of these subjects, a rather hefty rat that was shown off to the press, was fitted with a wired prototype of the company’s brain-machine interface. During the press demo, Sabes mentioned that the amount of data gathered from the rodent was about ten times greater than what is possible with today’s sensors.
In his presentation, Elon Musk stated that the evolution of Neuralink’s tech would be gradual, though he did mention that the company’s goal is a form of “symbiosis” with technology. “It’s not going to be suddenly Neuralink will have this neural lace and start taking over people’s brains. This is going to sound pretty weird, but ultimately, we will achieve symbiosis with artificial intelligence. This is not a mandatory thing. It is a thing you can choose to have if you want. This is something that I think will be really important on a civilization-level scale,” he remarked.
While the technologies shared by Neuralink on Tuesday seemed borderline science fiction, Neuralink president Max Hodak noted that similar innovations have actually been introduced and implemented in the past. “Neuralink didn’t come out of nowhere; there’s a long history of academic research here. We’re, in the greatest sense, building on the shoulders of giants,” he said. Nevertheless, Neuralink’s goal of directly reading neural spikes in a minimally-intrusive way remains notably ambitious.
The potential for such technologies is enormous. Implants such as BrainGate, which was developed initially at Brown University, were used in cases such as those of Matthew Nagle, who suffered from a spinal cord injury. Back in 2006, Nagle was able to learn how to use a computer using brain implants, at one point even playing Pong with his mind. In its presentation, Neuralink noted that its brain implants could be used for several individuals afflicted by Parkinson’s Disease, Dystonia, Epilepsy, OCD, Depression, Chronic Pain, and Tinnitus, among many.
Yet, despite its impressive innovations and its lofty goals, it should be noted that Neuralink is still a long way from achieving its targets. Dr. Matthew MacDougall, head surgeon at Neuralink, mentioned this while discussing how Neuralink implants could be as seamless as Lasik in the future. “There is a whole FDA process we have to go though. We haven’t done that yet,” he said.
So why the presentation? As noted by Elon Musk, Tuesday’s event is, at its core, an invitation for interested individuals who would like to work on the innovations that Neuralink is pursuing. With this open invitation, it would not be surprising if the company attracts an impressive number of talent in the near future. But now it’s time for you to vote. Will you be open to getting a brain-machine interface implant from Neuralink in the future?