Elon Musk's Neuralink reveals 'implantable' brain-computer interface that aims to help humans keep up with AI

Neuralink demo highlights 'mind-blowing' potential, questions about feasibility

Neuralink, the neurotechnology company founded by Elon Musk, showcased a dramatic demonstration of its brain-computer interface (BCI) device Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2022, bolstering a growing body of research that such implants hold potential for treating neurological conditions like Alzheimer's and epilepsy and even restoring vision.

The event primarily served as a showcase for Neuralink's latest prototype device, dubbed the N1 Link, which is markedly smaller and more flexible than the previous version. In fact, unlike the previous model, the N1 is meant to be fully implantable in the skull, with wires threading into the brain itself.

According to Neuralink, the N1 Link is already in rodent testing, with the company claiming that a macaque monkey with the implant can play a simple video game with his mind. The prototype is intended to be affordable enough for individuals to purchase and install themselves at home (similar to how one might give themselves an at-home tattoo).

Currently, Neuralink is awaiting approval from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to begin clinical trials in humans.

"I think overall, Neuralink gave a very thoughtful, thorough update, which is what we've come to expect from them," said Robert Haber, a BCI researcher and entrepreneur who was not involved with the demo. "The biggest headline, of course, is that they are shooting for home installation, which is really exciting, albeit likely the most difficult aspect of the update to achieve."

There were also some eye-catching reveals about the company's research direction. One presentation showed the company is exploring the use of BCIs to provide haptic feedback through small implants in the somatosensory cortex, which handles touch sensations. Another talked up the possibility of using BCIs to improve the vision of people with retinal impairments — a presentation that came with a cheeky promise to eventually reveal how Neuralink's tech could let blinded individuals "see in ultraviolet."

The overarching theme of the night was the accelerating pace of progress in the field of BCIs, and the gap that's opening up between the speed of technological advancement and the pace of regulatory approval.

"The rate of progress on neural technologies is accelerating, and that is going to be an exponential curve," said Musk during his opening remarks. "I think this is extremely important for humanity to succeed with AI and make sure that we are aligned with AI, that we are partnered with AI."

Musk notably has pushed for the acceleration of BCI research, claiming in a tweet in 2020 that "if you can't beat AI, join it." During Tuesday's presentation, he framed the technology as a way for humans to augment their abilities and "be on the same wavelength as a supercomputer."

But beyond the hype, the event also raised questions about the feasibility of some of Neuralink's plans — specifically the N1 Link's intended purpose of home installation.

"Implanting a device deep into the brain is really risky, especially if it's done without the assistance of a highly trained surgeon and in a non-sterile environment," said Haber, noting that even small movements can greatly affect the device's placement. "If done wrong, you can really injure yourself."

Haber also pointed out that the electrodes used in BCIs must also make direct contact with specific parts of the brain to achieve their intended results — a fact that's often overlooked in popular depictions of the technology.

"Just sticking something in your head isn't going to give you superhuman senses," he said.

Another revealing trend was the increasingly effusive language used to describe the potential applications of BCI technology, with presenters saying its impact could be "mind-blowing" and even "revolutionary" — a marked contrast to the more measured tone of scientists in the field.

But despite the flashy presentation and ambitious claims, Neuralink's event primarily served to highlight the steadily advancing research in BCI technology — a point not lost on the scientists and researchers watching.

"It is impressive how far the field has advanced," said Haber. "When I started doing this 10 years ago, we would have been thrilled to get a single neuron to fire with a neural stimulator. And now we have companies like Neurable and Kernel making electrically intelligent implants that can read and write to many neurons at once, and now Musk is talking about hundreds of thousands."

"That said, it's also important to maintain scientific rigor and not get caught up in the hype, because the technology is still very early in its development."

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