Elon musk‘s latest startup has unveiled a brain-reading device that uses small ‘threads’ to detect neuron activity so that users can control computers with their mind. at its presentation at the california academy of sciences on tuesday, the brain-computer interface company neuralink stepped out of the shadows to reveal plans to test its neuron-reading technology on humans as early next year.
‘I think this is going to be important at a civilization-wide scale,’ elon musk said at the event. ‘even under a benign artificial intelligence, we will be left behind. with a high bandwidth brain-machine interface, we will have the option to go along for the ride.’
neuralink is currently developing tiny processors that connect to the brain via threads that are thinner than human hair. at about 4-6 micrometers these sensors will fit on the surface of the skull, relaying information to a wearable computer that sits behind your ear.
elon musk also said that long-term neuralink really is about figuring out a way to ‘achieve a sort of symbiosis with artificial intelligence.’ ‘this is not a mandatory thing,’ he added. ‘this is something you can choose to have if you want.’
‘neuralink didn’t come out of nowhere, there’s a long history of academic research here,’ hodak said at the presentation on tuesday. ‘we’re, in the greatest sense, building on the shoulders of giants.’ however, none of the existing technologies fit neuralink’s goal of directly reading neural spikes in a minimally invasive way.
To insert the device neuralink has also developed a surgical robot equipped with advanced optics. capable of weaving the delicate threads throughout brain tissue without damaging blood vessels the neurosurgical robot inserts six threads (192 electrodes) per minute using a 24-micron needle. neuralink described the robot to work ‘somewhat like a sewing machine’ to implant the threads.
Once embedded in the user’s brain, the threads will be capable of performing both read and write operations at very high data volume. the external receiver would then wirelessly communicate with the embedded chip and connect to apps, though it currently relies on a hardwired external connection (USB-C).
neuralink is hoping to begin working with human test subjects as early as next year. it plans to seek FDA approval for its first human clinical trial that will use a version of its device that is ‘only intended for patients with serious unmet medical diseases’, said dr matthew mcdougall, neuralink’s head neurosurgeon.
thus far the technology has only been tested on animals. it was revealed during the presentation that as well as testing on rats the company is also working with scientists at the university of california, davis, to conduct experiments with monkeys.
The new york times reported that a demo at the neuralink building on tuesday showed off what it said was ‘a system connected to a laboratory rat reading information from 1,500 electrodes—15 times better than current systems embedded in humans.’ this is roughly 15 times better than current systems embedded in humans, which if successfully applied to, could be sufficient for research and medical application.
according to the wall street journal, neuralink’s research paper has not yet been peer-reviewed, and lacks critical data on how the device will function over time, as well as its impact on the user:
[the paper] didn’t include data on the long-term stability of recorded neural signals nor the brain’s inflammatory response.
“that is utterly critical” before any device can advance to human trials, said loren frank, a university of california, san francisco neuroscientist developing brain-computer interfaces. neuralink has said it is doing those experiments but isn’t ready to make the data public.