World's first Neuralink patient enjoying online chess, long Civ 6 sessions

While excited by the implant, Noland Arbaugh says it's not perfect and there's still work to be done

Neuralink's first human patient is now a public figure, with the company publishing a video yesterday showing him playing chess on a laptop and talking about how "freakin' lucky" he is to be involved in the tests.

Noland Arbaugh, 29, was paralyzed from the shoulders down in a diving accident several years ago. Thanks to his experimental Neuralink implant, he says he's now able to control a mouse cursor, play video games, and generally feels like someone with "telekinetic" abilities – albeit ones restricted solely to the digital realm.

Arbaugh's Neuralink device was implanted in January, and within a month Neuralink CEO Elon Musk pointed out that he was able to fully control a mouse cursor with his thoughts. In the video, Arbaugh says the process worked by him differentiating between imagined and attempted movement by trying to move his arms from left to right – something he's unable to do as a quadriplegic.

He used the same intention to imagine moving an on-screen cursor, describing his ability as "like using the Force," referring to the Star Wars phenomenon that allows Jedi knights to move objects with their minds.

Arbaugh says the surgery, performed by a Neuralink-designed robot, was easy, and that he was out of the hospital after a day. Arbaugh hasn't noticed any cognitive impairments as a result of the implant.

The Neuralink pioneer says he's now able to play chess along with Civilization 6, a favorite game that he was unable to enjoy without assistance due to its complex nature. One of the first times Neuralink gave him clearance to use the chip outside of lab test environments, "I stayed up until 6am playing Civ 6. It was worth it," Arbaugh said. 

His only restriction on all-day Civ sessions is the implant's eight-hour battery life, which means he has to stop playing to recharge. Neuralink advertises its implants as charging via induction.

That said, Arbaugh notes that the implant isn't perfect, and he has run into issues – albeit none he specified with a Neuralink engineer hovering over his shoulder.

"This isn't the end of the journey – there's a lot of work to be done," Arbaugh said. 

Of course, the video has to be taken at face value as no evidence that Arbaugh has the implant, or was using it when the mouse cursor was shown moving on screen, was provided. Neuralink didn't respond to questions from The Register.

It's also worth noting that Kip Ludwig, former program director for neural engineering at the National Institutes of Health and co–director of the Wisconsin Institute for Translational Neuroengineering, says what Neuralink showed off in the video wasn't exactly a breakthrough.

"It's certainly a good starting point," Ludwig told the Washington Post, but "it's not a clear breakthrough compared to what others have shown previously."

Citing work at companies like BlackRock and Synchron, Ludwig reckons other firms have shown similar ability for their implant patients to control electronic devices, and that it's still very early in the implant window to assess the success of Neuralink's work.

"We can argue about where the bit rate is for these tasks vs historical subjects/other neural interfaces and companies at an equivalent time post-procedure," Ludwig said in a post on LinkedIn. "But it's still amazing to see a paralyzed individual playing chess and Civ VI using brain signals."

Musk said yesterday on X that Neuralink also intends to pursue technology to restore sight to the blind, but it's not clear if that's something the company is actively working on, or simply more investor-exciting hype from one of the world's richest men. ®

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