A human trial for a Neuralink brain implant could be just six months away, Elon Musk announced on Wednesday, as he showcased the progress the neurotechnology moonshot has made since the last year.
“We are now confident that the Neuralink device is ready for humans, so timing is a function of working through the FDA approval process,” Musk tweeted. The US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) is the regulatory body that approves all health-related products and services.
With current trials ongoing in pigs and monkeys, Neuralink aims to use its brain-computer interface (BCI) to restore sight for the blind and muscle movement for those with motor impairments.
“As miraculous as that may sound, we are confident that it is possible to restore full-body functionality to someone who has a severed spinal cord,” Musk announced at the “show and tell” event at Neuralink headquarters in San Francisco. He added that a Neuralink device could help those with vision impairments regain their sight. “Even if they have never seen before, we are confident they could see,” he said.
How it works
Neuralink’s device is an implantable brain-computer interface capable of both reading and writing signals from and to the brain. The coin-sized implant (dubbed “Link”) will be embedded into the brain using thousands of micron-scale threads, connected to a charging device placed behind the ear. Neuralink plans to make the implants “cosmetically invisible” (Musk joked that he could be wearing one as he spoke and nobody would know – and promised he would use the device himself at a future event).
A robot-surgeon inserts thousands of tiny, micron-scale threads with electrodes into key areas of the brain relating to movement, visual and auditory information. These transmit information to a chip, dubbed N1.
Link can process and transmit neural signals, sending them to a computer or monitoring device via Bluetooth. “With a Bluetooth connection, you would be able to potentially control any mouse or keyboard with your thoughts,” Neuralink claims on their website.
However, Musk cautioned that the pace of progress could be slow.
“The progress at first, particularly as it applies to humans, will seem agonizingly slow, but we’re doing all of the things necessary to bring it to scale in parallel. In theory, progress should be exponential,” he said.
Musk hopes the human-computer fusion will help humanity better cope with the challenge of generalised artificial intelligence – which he has long maintained will pose an existential threat to humanity.
What we see
The November 30 Neuralink demo showcased multiple examples of animals using the device. One demo showed a monkey “typing” on a laptop using just its mind. A caveat: The monkey was not literate – it had been trained to click on highlighted characters in a QWERTY keyboard. Neuralink hopes to use a similar process to allow those with motor disabilities to type with their minds – faster than a fully-abled human being with a mobile phone.
Neuralink has already begun accepting applications to join its “patient registry”, which would allow those with motor impairments to sign up to be a part of future clinical trials. The impairments currently being considered include quadriplegia, paraplegia, vision loss, hearing loss and the inability to speak, according to Neuralink’s website.
In 2021, Neuralink showed a Neuralink-implanted monkey that had been trained to play the videogame “Pong” doing so with the controller disconnected – essentially playing the game with its mind. At the time, Neuralink’s demos highlighted its ability to read and understand brain data pertaining to motion and visual cognition.
Wednesday’s demo was more application-oriented – one example showed a pig’s rear legs being manipulated to move via the device.
Wednesday’s demo showcased much of the product side of Neuralink’s BCI vision. The company said the monkeys in its experiment had already received upgraded implants.
Future versions of the device could also utilise less invasive surgery. While existing methods to implant onto the brain require moving aside a layer of the brain’s dura mater, Neuralink plans to make tiny holes instead that will heal rapidly and cause less loss of cerebrospinal fluid. “In theory, the whole thing could be a 10-minute operation like LASIK,” Musk said.
Long-term, Musk sees the creation of a generalised input/output platform for the brain – a goal that could allow you to control a computer with your mind, meld your consciousness with artificial intelligence and perhaps even reverse mental health disorders.
Neuralink says the animal participation in their experiments was largely voluntary, on account of the sensors and devices being placed within their “home” environments. This includes a charging point for the device – a coil placed under a branch wirelessly charges the implant while the monkey lingers nearby.
Another company, Synchron, conducted the first BCI implant in the United States in July, following FDA approval via an investigational device exemption (IDE).