Neuralink is one of Elon Musk’s strange and futuristic companies.
It’s developing neural interface technology — a.k.a. putting microchips in people’s brains.
The technology could help study and treat neurological disorders.
Elon Musk is known for his high-profile companies like Tesla and SpaceX, but the billionaire also has a handful of unusual ventures. He says he started one of them to achieve “symbiosis” between the human brain and artificial intelligence.
Neuralink is Musk’s neural interface technology company. It’s developing a device that would be embedded in a person’s brain, where it would record brain activity and potentially stimulate it. Musk has compared the technology to a “FitBit in your skull.”
Musk also had twins with top Neuralink executive Shivon Zilis, Insider was first to report.
While Musk likes to talk up his futuristic vision for the technology, the tech has some potential near-term 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 Neuralink executive team showed off their tech 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 Neuralink is developing is about the size of a coin, and would be embedded in a person’s 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 monitor brain activity and, theoretically, electrically stimulate the brain. This data is 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.
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, Neuralink showed off one of its chips embedded in a pig named Gertrude.
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.
Neuralink went a step further with its animal demos 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 excitedly announced in a 2019 presentation that Neuralink 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 reiterated 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.
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 that researchers first pioneered this kind of tech in 2002 — but arguably its origins go all the way back to the 1960s.
An animal-rights group filed a complaint against Neuralink in February 2022 over the treatment of the monkeys used in its research.
In February 2022, animal-rights group the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine said it had submitted a complaint to the US Department of Agriculture after obtaining more than 700 pages of documents relating to monkeys used in Neuralink research at the University of California at Davis between 2017 and 2020.
The group obtained the documents, which included veterinary records and necropsy reports, via a public records request. It said they indicated 23 monkeys had experienced “extreme suffering as a result of inadequate animal care and the highly invasive experimental head implants during the experiments.”
A UC Davis spokesperson told Insider that during its research collaboration with Neuralink, “research protocols were thoroughly reviewed and approved by the campus’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee.”
The spokesperson said the collaboration between Neuralink and UC Davis ended in 2020.
“We strive to provide the best possible care to animals in our charge. Animal research is strictly regulated and UC Davis follows all applicable laws and regulations including those of the US Department of Agriculture,” they said.
Neuralink refuted accusations from an animal-rights group that its test monkeys were mistreated.
“At Neuralink, we are absolutely committed to working with animals in the most humane and ethical way possible,” Neuralink said in a blog post.
Neuralink said it had kept its monkeys at UC Davis while it built its own animal housing facility.
“While the facilities and care at UC Davis did and continue to meet federally mandated standards, we absolutely wanted to improve upon these standards as we transitioned animals to our in-house facilities,” Neuralink said.
It said it opened a 6,000 square-feet vivarium for its monkeys and “farm animals” in 2020. It said its animal enclosures contain “environmental enrichments” including pools, swings, and treehouses.
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.
“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 company’s 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 said Neuralink hopes to start implanting its chips in humans in 2022 — two years later than he’d originally envisaged.
He repeated the claim on Twitter.
“Progress will accelerate when we have devices in humans (hard to have nuanced conversations with monkeys) next year,” Musk tweeted.
This isn’t the first time Musk has set a timeline for getting Neuralink’s chips into humans.
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.
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.
Neuralink cofounder and president Max Hodak left the company in April 2021. In February 2022 he revealed he’d invested in a rival.
Hodak announced on May 1, 2021, that he’d left Neuralink a few weeks previously, tweeting that he remained a “huge cheerleader” for the company.
In February 2022, Hodak published a blog post saying he’d been serving as an advisor to Synchron, a rival biotech company that beat Neuralink to human trials with its own neural interface technology.
Hodak also announced he’d invested in Synchron and told Bloomberg in an email: “I really don’t want this to be construed as a knock on Neuralink.”
“I’m sure they will also get into humans soon too,” Hodak told Bloomberg.
In November 2021 Musk had twins with Neuralink director of operations and special projects Shivon ZIlis.
Insider obtained court documents which showed Musk and Zillis had petitioned to change the childrens’ names to “have their father’s last name and contain their mother’s last name as part of their middle name.”
Zillis previously worked at Tesla as a project director on the company’s autopilot and chip design teams, and was on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list in 2015.
Musk has nine known children including his twins with Zillis.
In the near-term, a chip in someone’s brain could help treat neurological disorders like Parkinson’s.
Improved neural interface technology like Neuralink’s could help better study and treat severe neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Professor Andrew Hires said 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, adding 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.
Neuralink hinted its chip’s first real-world application would be giving quadriplegic people the ability to control phones and laptops.
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. Quadriplegia is partial or full 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.
During The Wall Street Journal CEO Council Summit in December 2021, Musk said the first humans into whom Neuralink hopes to implant its devices are people who: “have severe spinal cord injuries like tetraplegics, quadriplegics.”
Tetraplegia is another term for quadriplegia.
Elon Musk also says that in the long term, Neuralink’s chip could be used to meld human consciousness with artificial intelligence — though experts are skeptical of this.
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 the medical applications of Neuralink’s tech. At one point he 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.
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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