Elon Musk's brain-computer interface outfit Neuralink tests its tech on a human
Controling prostheses? Mr X imagines an app for that
Elon Musk's brain-computer interface implant company Neuralink has begun its first human clinical trial.
“The first human received an implant from Neuralink yesterday and is recovering well. Initial results show promising neuron spike detection," announced Musk in a tweet on Monday, amplified by Neuralink.
Details of the patient were not provided. However, they likely were living with a spinal cord injury or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), as Neuralink appeared to be recruiting those individuals for its first human trial – a six-year program known as the Precise Robotically Implanted Brain-Computer Interface (PRIME) study.
Entry into the program, however, was not constrained to ALS or spinal cord injury. "If you have quadriplegia and are interested in exploring new ways of controlling your computer, you may qualify," read the study's recruiting pamphlet.
The implantable brain computer interface (BCI) used in the PRIME study is designed to decode intended movement signals from brain activity, then control devices that assist movement. The BCI records activity through 1024 electrodes distributed across 64 threads, each thinner than a human hair.
Neuralink's goal is for PRIME to evaluate the safety and effectiveness of the BCI implant known as the N1, the surgical robot known as R1, and the corresponding software known as N1 User App to enable individuals with paralysis to control external devices.
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Musk followed up his initial announcement by detailing that the name of the first Neuralink product is "Telepathy."
"[It enables] control of your phone or computer, and through them almost any device, just by thinking. Initial users will be those who have lost the use of their limbs," furthered Musk. The serial entrepreneur then drew on the image of the late theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking to illustrate an ideal user.
Musk said a tool like Neuralink would have allowed the wheelchair-bound scientist to "communicate faster than a speed typist or auctioneer. That is the goal."
While that all sounds very noble, there are some concerns beyond those related to a mind control narrative.
For one, the research outfit only earned approval for clinical trials from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) after many delays.
Concerns from the agency ranged from brain damage on removal, to chips overheating, the general risks associated with placing a lithium-ion battery in the brain and fear wires could "migrate."
In the interim, Neuralink tested its product on monkeys – an endeavor which resulted in accusations of animal cruelty after some primates used in tests acquired infections or died.
Neuralink did eventually post a video of a living monkey playing pong with its brain.
But then there's the question of cyber security. What if implants somehow end up getting hacked?
Neuralink is not the first to implant a BCI in a human. A search on ClinicalTrials.gov – a database of both public and private clinical trials – turns up a bevy of completed and ongoing BCI-related studies across the world.
However, it curiously does not turn up any for Neuralink – which might serve Musk well when he wants to keep details private. ®