With grudging assistance from a trio of pigs, Neuralink co-founder Elon Musk showed off the startup’s state-of-the-art neuron-reading brain implant and announced that the system has received the Food and Drug Administration’s preliminary blessing as an experimental medical device.
During today’s demonstration at Neuralink’s headquarters in Fremont, Calif., it took a few minutes for wranglers to get the swine into their proper positions for what Musk called his “Three Little Pigs demonstration.”
One of the pigs was in her natural state, and roamed unremarkably around her straw-covered pen. Musk said the second pig of the trio had been given a brain implant that was later removed, demonstrating that the operation could be reversed safely.
After some difficulty, a third pig named Gertrude was brought into her pen. As she rooted around in the straw, a sequence of jazzy electronic beeps played through the sound system. Musk said the tones were sounded whenever nerves in the pig’s snout triggered electrical signals that were picked up by her brain implant.
“The beeps you’re hearing are real-time signals from the Neuralink in Gertrude’s head,” he said.
Eventually, Neuralink’s team plans to place the implants in people, initially to see if those who have become paralyzed due to spinal cord injuries can regain motor functions through thought alone.
Musk said the implant received a Breakthrough Device designation from the FDA last month. That doesn’t yet clear the way for human clinical trials, but it does put Neuralink on the fast track for consultation with the FDA’s experts during preparations for such trials.
Neuralink has received more than $150 million in funding, with roughly two-thirds of that support coming from Musk himself. Today he said the venture had about 100 employees. He expects that number to grow. “Over time, there might be 10,000 or more people at Neuralink,” he said.
Musk said the primary purpose of today’s demonstration was to recruit more job applicants.
Brain-computer interfaces have been the stuff of science fiction for decades, and in a sense, they already exist in the form of neuron-reading electrode grids. But Musk and his Neuralink team are aiming to create easily implantable, wireless devices that theoretically could be used to give full sight to the blind and make it possible for people to communicate thoughts directly.
Over the longer term, Musk said the system could help people store and replay their memories, upload their minds and download them back into robotic bodies, or merge their consciousness with AI agents.
“This is obviously sounding increasingly like a ‘Black Mirror’ episode,” he said. “The future is going to be weird.”
Neuralink’s researchers aren’t the only ones working on next-generation interfaces. This week, a venture called Synchron announced that its implantable brain-computer interface has also received the FDA’s Breakthrough Device designation. Synchron’s Stentrode device stimulates the nervous system from the interior of a blood vessel, without the need for open brain surgery. It’s already been implanted in patients with upper-limb paralysis during trials conducted in Australia.
Another venture, BrainGate, is developing a brain implant system that has been approved for investigational use in clinical trials.
At Seattle’s Center for Neurotechnology, which is headquartered at the University of Washington with funding from the National Science Foundation, researchers are developing technologies aimed at giving rise to brain co-processors.
“These are brain-computer interfaces that use AI to transform information from one region of the brain to stimulate another, in order to achieve a goal such as rehabilitation, restoration or augmentation of brain function,” UW neuroscientist Rajesh Rao, the center’s co-director, explained in an email to GeekWire.
Rao said Neuralink appears to be working toward a similar goal.
The fact that Musk is involved gives Neuralink an extra shot of mystique. His success as the CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, and his high-flying vision for merging the brain’s wetware with computer hardware, have boosted interest in the secretive biomedical venture.
There may even be cross-promotional possibilities. One questioner asked whether Neuralink’s device could be used to summon a self-driving Tesla telepathically. “Definitely,” Musk replied. “Of course.”
Musk brushed off concerns that brain surgery could turn out to be trickier than rocket science or automotive manufacturing.
“All of your senses — your sight, hearing, feeling, pain — these are all electrical signals sent by neurons to your brain,” he said. “And if you can correct these signals, you can solve everything from memory loss to hearing loss, blindness, paralysis, depression, insomnia, extreme pain, seizures, anxiety, addiction. strokes, brain damage. These can all be solved with an implantable Neurolink. … The neurons are like wiring, and you kind of need an electronic thing to solve an electronic problem.”
Musk said Neuralink’s implant would work like a “Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires.” A surgical robot would open a coin-sized hole in the skull and insert an array of electrodes with 1,024 channels into the cortex. The electrodes would consist of threadlike wires — each about 5 microns wide, or one-twentieth the width of a human hair. The robot would place those electrodes precisely enough to avoid piercing the brain’s blood vessels.
Neurolink’s objective is to compete the implantation surgery in less than an hour with no general anesthesia, and let the patient leave the hospital the same day. The wireless, coin-sized device would be sealed smoothly onto the surface of the skull with medical-grade glue, and could be given a full day’s charge overnight with the kind of inductive charger commonly used today for smartwatches. Wearers could use a smartphone app and a Bluetooth connection to control the device.
Musk said the current design would be much less obtrusive than the behind-the-ear design that was unveiled a year ago. “I could have a Neuralink right now, and you wouldn’t know. Maybe I do,” he joked. The device has been tested under conditions that give the developers confidence it’ll last for at least a year before requiring replacement.
How much will all this cost? Musk acknowledged that the procedure would be “quite expensive” at first, but he said Neurolink would bring the cost down by scaling up the technology.
“Inclusive of the automated surgery, I think we want to get the price down to a few thousand dollars,” he said. “I think it should be possible to get it similar to Lasik [eye surgery], and then the device electronics itself, I think, will not be very expensive, because it actually does use parts that are made in extremely high volume, in tens of millions of units, for smartphones as well as smartwatches and wearables in general.”
So, how much of Musk’s grand vision will become reality? During today’s Q&A session, members of the Neuralink team addressed that issue with a blend of hope and humor.
“I’m really interested about solving things related to anxiety, depression, or even like removing fear,” mechanical engineer Robin Young said. She said she’d love to be able to go rock climbing without fear.
“And also, it’d be great if we could make the pigs fly,” Young said with a laugh.