In the first week of July 2020, Elon Musk notified his Twitter followers that there would be an update on the progress being made at Neuralink, Musk’s neurotechnology company that’s working on an implantable brain-machine interface (BMI).
He promised that in August they would have a working model of the device for use in patients with extreme medical problems along with a second version of the surgical robot that could implant these chips. He added, this interface wouldn’t be the ultimate version he expects the company to develop for general consumer use—that will arrive at some future point. In July, Neuralink’s first version of the design was already being tested on laboratory animals.
Neuralink is a San Francisco-based neurotechnology company that was founded by Elon Musk and eight others in 2016. Today, it has more than 100 neuroscientists and engineers working on a device that will wirelessly connect neural brain activity to external digital devices and prosthetics. Neuralink operations have been relatively secretive, so this proposed public launch seemed to offer a welcome window.
The Friday night online demo on August 28, 2020 (see photo at top), was a half hour late starting, but the Neuralink team delivered what Musk had promised. The new design for the chip was small and would be nearly invisible because it’s implanted flush in the skull beneath the hairline. Version two of the surgical robot was on the set along with about a dozen Neuralink scientists and techs.
Musk called the new Link V0.9 a FitBit in your skull because it can monitor changes in temperature and movement, and can even alert you to an imminent stroke or heart attack. The interface is only 23mm wide, about the size of a quarter but thicker at 8mm (0.315″).
It consists of a computer chip with a number of measurement tools, a Bluetooth radio for receiving the signals from neurons in the brain and sending that data wirelessly to external digital devices, an all-day rechargeable battery, and a very small harness of thin wires extending away from the Link.
Neuralink calls the wires threads because they’re roughly one quarter the diameter of a human hair and they provide a total of 1,024 receiving and sending channels. They spread out and away from the chip and rest in the space between the inner skull and the cortex of the brain.
The Link is implanted flush with the skull, and the process can be done by Neuralink’s V 2.0 surgical robot in less than an hour. You can leave the hospital on the same day, and there’s no general anesthesia required with the robot.
Other current BMIs are used to restore mobility and communication for those who have lost bodily connection because of paralysis, limb loss, or neurogenerative disease. Deep-brain stimulation has also proved beneficial for Parkinson’s patients and some seizure disorders. Neuralink has a broad spectrum of disorders that it intends to research as possible fields for the Link device. The slide (below) from the demonstration lists twelve of these potential areas.
THREE LITTLE PIGS
Also present were Joyce, Dorothy, and Gertrude, whom Musk called his three little pigs. Joyce had no implant; Dorothy used to have an implant and was now showing no adverse effects from having had one; and Gertrude had a connected implant, and the feed coming from it was broadcast live on a screen for the audience.
The pigs were there to demonstrate how the Link receives and sends specific information about what’s going on inside their cortex as they’re offered snacks in their pens. Pigs were chosen by Neuralink because the animals are smart, their skulls are about the same thickness as humans, and they’re good subjects for testing the endurance of the Link’s hardware and connections. Pigs are very active, and they like head-butting much more than humans do.
The sound and patterns of white flashes in Gertrude’s monitor as she snuffled around for the treats registered the spikes of activity among groups of neurons in her brain. The ultimate goal for the researchers is to refine the process to be able to collect spikes of individual neurons.
This is a read/write architecture with the ability to see the neurons firing and also to use the input electrodes to fire neurons in specific regions. The write capability could allow a BMI to send stimuli from the motor part of the brain to a disconnected limb or to a prosthesis.
During the Q&A, a question was asked about the spike detection software, and a team member explained that the algorithm for the detection is editable and can be expanded. A spike sees the primary communication between neurons, and the current number of 1,024 electrodes is also expected to be expanded in the future. The communication between neurons is not only responsible for physical operations, but it’s assumed that’s where memory and thought might originate and be stored.
Asked if they can go deeper than just the surface layers of the brain in the cortex, the head neurosurgeon said, in the future, they will go deeper by lengthening the threads. When asked what some of the most challenging problems are, a team member said it was choosing the best materials for the wires. Threads need to last for decades, and they’re in a corrosive atmosphere.
When asked about the speed of the Link’s processor, the chip designer said the channels record and write much faster than the brain processes’ signals even though the chip runs on low-speed energy. One person asked, will this device help to explain what consciousness is? Musk answered simply, Ultimately, yes.
When asked what the Link will cost at launch, Musk admitted that at first it will be very expensive. But over time, he would like to level the cost to a few thousand dollars including surgery that eventually, he said, will be comparable in safety, comfort, and cost to LASIK eye surgery being done today.
THE RESEARCHERS’ HOPES
The presentation ended with a single question asked of all the researchers there. What is it that you hope for with this device? The answers ranged widely over the therapeutic to theoretical. Here are some of the hopes of those working on the Link.
- A visual prosthesis for blindness that includes Link technology with a camera connected in.
- Direct transmission of thought without the slow conversion into words. (Musk called this “conceptual telepathy.”)
- Making the device a seamless part of the brain—more biological than mechanical.
- To remove suffering such as physical pain.
- To help people over so many devastating things like spinal injury.
- To see what it will reveal about thought processing for those on the autism spectrum.
- Being able to store and having a repository of memories, available for recall.
- Simply, what it will teach us about the nature of human consciousness.
When Musk addressed what he hoped for from this research, he said he hoped the Link would provide a hedge against the rapid advancement of AI, which he has often warned might overtake human capabilities. He explained, “We do want a close coupling between collective human intelligence, and Neuralink is trying to help in that regard by trying [to create] a high bandwidth interface between AI and the human brain. Ultimately, to achieve a symbiosis with artificial intelligence.” He expressed this same sentiment much more colloquially in a tweet earlier this year: “If you can’t beat em, join em. Neuralink mission statement.”
The Link V 0.9 has received approval as an FDA breakthrough device, which will allow it to be used in limited human testing under the FDA guidelines for testing medical devices. The classification also grants it priority review status from the FDA. The Neuralink website (www.neuralink.com) has a lot of the basic science and the company’s view of the future of neural engineering in clear, manageable text and videos.