Rock-climb without fear. Play a symphony in your head. See radar with superhuman vision. Discover the nature of consciousness. Cure blindness, paralysis, deafness, and mental illness. Those are just a few of the applications that Elon Musk and employees at his four-year-old neuroscience company Neuralink believe electronic brain-computer interfaces will one day bring about.
None of these advances are close at hand, and some are unlikely to ever come about. But in a “product update” streamed over YouTube on Friday, Musk, also the founder of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, joined staffers wearing black masks to discuss the company’s work toward an affordable, reliable brain implant that Musk believes billions of consumers will clamor for in the future.
“In a lot of ways,” Musk said, “It’s kind of like a Fitbit in your skull, with tiny wires.”
Although the online event was described as a product demonstration, there is as yet nothing that anyone can buy or use from Neuralink. (This is for the best, since most of the company’s medical claims remain highly speculative.) It is, however, engineering a super-dense electrode technology that is being tested on animals.
Neuralink isn’t the first to believe that brain implants could extend or restore human capabilities. Researchers began placing probes in the brains of paralyzed people in the late 1990s in order to show that signals could let them move robot arms or computer cursors. And mice with visual implants really can perceive infrared rays.
Building on that work, Neuralink says it hopes to further develop such brain-computer interfaces (or BCIs) to the point where one can be installed in a doctor’s office in under an hour. “This actually does work,” Musk said of people who have controlled computers with brain signals. “It’s just not something the average person can use effectively.”
Throughout the event, Musk deftly avoided giving timelines or committing to schedules on questions such as when Neuralink’s system might be tested in human subjects.
As yet, four years after its formation, Neuralink has provided no evidence that it can (or has even tried to) treat depression, insomnia, or a dozen other diseases that Musk mentioned in a slide. One difficulty ahead of the company is perfecting microwires that can survive the “corrosive” context of a living brain for a decade. That problem alone could take years to solve.
The primary objective of the streamed demo, instead, was to stir excitement, recruit engineers to the company (which already employs about 100 people), and build the kind of fan base that has cheered on Musk’s other ventures and has helped propel the gravity-defying stock price of electric-car maker Tesla.
Pigs in the matrix
In tweets leading up to the event, Musk had promised fans a mind-blowing demonstration of neurons firing inside a living brain—though he didn’t say of what species. Minutes into the livestream, assistants drew a black curtain to reveal three small pigs in fenced enclosures; these were the subjects of the company’s implant experiments.
The brain of one pig contained an implant, and hidden speakers briefly chimed out ringtones that Musk said were recordings of the animal’s neurons firing in real time. For those awaiting the “matrix in the matrix,” as Musk had hinted on Twitter, the cute-animal interlude was not exactly what they hoped for. To neuroscientists, it was nothing new; in their labs the buzz and crackle of electrical impulses recorded from animal brains (and some human ones) has been heard for decades.
A year ago, Neuralink presented a sewing-machine robot able to plunge a thousand ultra-fine electrodes into a rodent’s brain. These probes are what measure the electrical signals emitted by neurons; the speed and patterns of those signals are ultimately a basis for movement, thoughts, and recall of memories.