Elon Musk's brain-machine interface company Neuralink presented a pig equipped with the company's device at an event streamed live on YouTube. One pig, Gertrude, had a device that recorded signals from an area of the brain connected to its snout. At the time of the demonstration, she had had the implant for two months.
When Gertrude's snout touched things, a series of dots and a series of sounds indicated when more neurons were firing. Pigs have large parts of their brain dedicated to the snout, a delicate sensing instrument.
"Like a Fitbit in your skull."
The design of the Neuralink device has changed since it was launched last year, making the device difficult to see even on Gertrude. It's now coin-shaped and is meant to sit flush with the skull instead of having a small module near the ear. It's "like a Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires," Musk said. The device can be paired with a smartphone app via Bluetooth Low Energy, he said.
As with last year's event, Musk said the main purpose of the demonstration was to attract more people to the team. (Neuralink currently has about 100 employees, Musk said. After all, he hopes to employ more than 10,000 people.) The merging of the human brain with AI is why Musk is looking to develop the devices. The device has not yet been tested in humans, although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration named it a breakthrough device, a program that allows them to get feedback from the agency throughout the development process, Musk said in the presentation.
Screenshot of the Neuralink presentation
Neuralink didn't invent brain-machine interfaces – they've been around since 2006, and they're implanted in people. The company's main contribution to the technology is Neuralink's thin, flexible wires, which are covered with electrodes to record brain activity.
The sutures have more electrodes than other systems – which means more information – and may not cause as much damage as stiff needles. However, foreign objects in the brain degrade over time, and smaller ones degrade faster. A member of the team at today's demonstration said one of the biggest challenges for Neuralink is making sure the device will last for decades in a corrosive environment like the brain.
The other distinction is Musk's ambition. At today's event, he said the device could help resolve a range of neurological problems, from memory loss to stroke to addiction, or it could monitor a user's health and alert them when they are having a heart attack. At last year's event, he said that Neuralink could make the implantation process for the device as easy and safe as Lasik eye surgery. Tonight he said it could be done in less than an hour without general anesthesia.
The first clinical studies will be conducted in a small number of patients with severe spinal cord injuries
The first clinical trials will be done on a small number of patients with severe spinal cord injuries to make sure it works and is safe. Last year, Musk said he hoped to begin human clinical trials in 2020. Long-term, Musk said they will be able to restore full motion in people with such injuries with a second implant on the spine.
But the most important thing the device could do, Musk said, would be to let people achieve what he calls “AI symbiosis,” which allows the human brain to merge with artificial intelligence. "So that the future of the world is controlled by the common will of the people on earth – I think that obviously this will be the future we want," he said tonight.
Currently, the device is limited to the surface of the brain – it doesn't tunnel into deeper regions. Many important functions such as movement, sight and hearing take place on the surface of the brain.
Musk said the company plans to hire robotics, electrical and software engineers to work on the device and refine the surgical procedure for implementation. The company has made a lot of revenue since it was founded in 2017, and only two members of the founding team work at Neuralink.
Former employees told Stat News that the company is chaotic and researchers are under heavy pressure to go through projects. Scientists were sometimes given weeks to complete projects that were supposed to take months, for example. "You build a medical device and a surgical approach to implant that medical device and you approach it with the help of a technology company – move fast and break things," said one employee.
Musk said the device would be "pretty expensive" when it first launched, but that he plans to bring the price down to a few thousand dollars. "I think it should be possible to get it similar to Lasik," he said.
Update 19:57 ET: Added additional comments from Musk.