Neuralink, Elon Musk’s startup that hopes to link our brains directly to computers, showed progress in two medical areas on Wednesday: helping blind people see and helping people with spinal cord injuries walk.
The company, one of five led by Musk, is working on technology to deposit thousands of electrodes thinner than a hair into the outer surface of the human brain. Each electrode is a small wire connected to a quarter-sized, battery-powered, remotely recharged chip package that is embedded in a spot that once held a skull circle. The chip, called N1, communicates wirelessly with the outside world.
The technology is still a far cry from initial medical uses, let alone Musk’s ultimate vision of using Neuralink to hang out with super-intelligent AIs. But it’s making significant progress, including applying to the Food and Drug Administration to begin human trials it hopes to begin within 6 months, the company said in a statement. show and tell event for more than two hours.
“Our goal will be to turn on the lights for someone who has spent decades living in the dark,” said Neuralink researcher Dan Adams, who is working on the effort to repackage camera data into a format compatible with the brain and direct them directly to the visual cortex. .
Musk has some credibility when it comes to groundbreaking technology. His electric vehicle company Tesla is changing cars profoundly and his SpaceX outfit is transforming access to space with reusable rockets. His reputation as a tech genius, however, took a hit with the chaos on Twitter following his $44 billion acquisition. Musk’s Boring Company, which aims to revamp auto transport with tunnels, has yet to deliver on its promises.
Neuralink does not seem simpler than social networks. Connecting hardware to our own wetware comes with huge technical, regulatory and ethical challenges. Helping the blind see is one thing, but feeding digital power directly to our brains might not help those of us who already spend too much time on our phones.
Neuralink technology to help quadriplegics walk
Previously, Neuralink showed how its electrodes can listen to brain activity. By capturing brain signals from a monkey named Pager who was playing the classic video game Pong, Neuralink computers learned to interpret motor control signals. Later, only signals from his brain could control the game.
At Neuralink’s “show and tell” event, designed to recruit new talent, the company showed off a new trick: a monkey named Sake who used his mind to follow prompts and type on a virtual keyboard. Their implants charge wirelessly, with monkeys being persuaded with a fruit smoothie to sit under a charger built into a branch just above their heads.
But Thursday’s biggest developments used those same electrodes to send signals back to the neurons that make up our brains and nervous systems.
One experiment used electrodes in a pig’s spinal cord to control different leg movements, a technology that could eventually help people with quadriplegia walk or use their hands. Neuralink’s approach is to not only intercept movement commands from the brain and direct them to the legs, but also to hear sensory signals from those extremities and send them back to the brain so the brain knows what’s going on.
“We have a lot of work to do to achieve this full vision, but hopefully you can see how the pieces are all there to make it happen,” said Joey O’Doherty, a researcher working on motor control technology from Neuralink.
See images and type with your mind
Another experiment fed visual data captured with a camera into a monkey’s visual cortex, showing it virtual flashes that the monkey interpreted as being in different locations. It is this technology that Neuralink hopes to lead to a visual prosthesis for the blind.
First-generation Neuralink technology uses 1,024 electrodes, but Neuralink has introduced next-generation models with over 16,000 electrodes. This detail would greatly improve the fidelity of the image a blind person could see, Adams said.
“If you put a device on both sides of your visual cortex, it would give you 32,000 points of light to image in a blind person,” Adams said.
Another Neuralink app allows paralyzed humans to use their implants for mental typing.
“We’re confident that someone with virtually no other interface to the outside world would be able to control their phone better than someone with working hands,” Musk said.
Neuralink is not alone
Neuralink is not alone in its pursuit of the field, called brain-machine interface (BMI) or brain-computer interface (BCI) technology. University researchers have produced a steady stream of research papers, and startups like BlackRock Neurotech, Synchron, and Paradromics are also active. Some, like Nuro, use non-invasive approaches that don’t require surgery.
One thing that separates Neuralink from some of these efforts is the goal of mass production.
“Production is tough – I’d say 100 to 1000 times harder to go from a prototype to a device that’s safe, reliable, works in a wide range of circumstances, affordable, and made to scale,” Musk said. “It’s incredibly difficult.”
Musk envisions Neuralink making millions of brain chips and said he expects to have one himself. To achieve this goal, the company tries to automate the technology as much as possible. His R1 robot threads electrodes into the brain without damaging blood vessels, but a next-generation machine is designed to handle more of the surgery, including cutting through the skull.
Neuralink is also working to locate its brain chips one layer further from the brain, outside of a layer called the dura mater. This requires major changes to the robot’s needles and needle steering systems, upgrades the company is working on today.
“There aren’t a lot of neurosurgeons – maybe around 10 per million people,” said Christine Odabashian, who leads Neuralink’s surgical engineering team. “In order for us to do the most good and have an affordable and accessible procedure, we need to understand how a neurosurgeon could oversee multiple procedures at the same time.”
Musk’s sci-fi vision for Neuralink
Another big difference between Neuralink and its rivals is Musk’s sci-fi take on it.
The company’s ambitions are high: “A generalized input-output device that could interface with every aspect of your brain,” Musk said. But the long-term plan is much bigger.
“What about AI, general artificial intelligence? Musk asked. “If we have a digital superintelligence, much smarter than any human, how do we mitigate that risk at the species level? Even in a benign scenario where the AI is very benevolent, how can we even make the journey How do we participate?
In Musk’s mind – conceptually only for now, but possibly eventually physically as well – the answer is Neuralink.
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