Elon Musk's Neuralink reveals new super-high-res brain implant designed to help mice 'play video games'

Last night, Neuralink, a neurotechnology company founded by Elon Musk in 2016, showcased a new super high-resolution implantable neural interface that can allegedly transmit far more data than existing devices.

The device, which is roughly the size of a small coin, can record, stimulate, and transmit neural signals in extremely high detail. It's designed to be used to help treat brain diseases and disorders, and potentially restore neurological function to people affected by spinal cord injury or paralysis.

During the presentation, Musk and company claimed that the device is so high-resolution that it could allow paraplegics to gain enough control to play a video game with their mind. They also claimed that the device will be able to stream camera input to users, theoretically allowing blind people to see, and that it will eventually be capable of treating neurological conditions like epilepsy or dementia.

Neuralink's CEO, Maxwell Blum, stated that the new hardware represents an order of magnitude improvement on the company's first-generation device, which was unveiled in 2019. That device had roughly 130 electrodes, could read up to roughly 240 bytes of data per second, and could be implanted in a patient in under 24 hours.

The new device has more than 3,000 electrodes and is capable of reading transmitting data at a rate of over 3,000 bytes per second. According to Musk, the chip operates at a speed that is roughly 2 orders of magnitude (i.e., 200%) faster than required to play the video game Pong.

Crucially, the company also revealed that the device has already been implanted into the motor cortex of two pigs, being used to test its motor function capabilities. During the presentation, the Neuralink team showed footage of one of these pigs apparently enjoying some leisure time listening to music, with the neural interface allowing the audio to be transmitted directly to its brain.

They also showed footage of a lab mouse apparently moving a cursor on a screen with its mind, and playing a game of ping-pong using only its thoughts (though the mouse was actually only teleoperating a robotic arm off-screen). According to Musk, the mouse was able to learn how to use the brain device in "under an hour," due to the higher speed of the new device.

Musk also insisted that the device was minimally invasive and causes no adverse reactions in the animals tested, such as inflammation or rejection. He also stated that the device could theoretically be implanted in a person in under 30 minutes, adding that the company aims to start producing the devices at scale within a year, and to begin commercial operations in 2023.

However, many experts were less than convinced by the demonstration, with some pointing out that most scientific demonstrations tend to involve carefully-selected and trained animals, and that the footage Neuralink showed was not necessarily representative of real-world applications for the device.

Others pointed out that the company has faced multiple setbacks in recent years, and that the technology still has several roadblocks to overcome, including the fact that neurons don't actually transmit thoughts themselves, and that decoding the brain's signals is a complex and notoriously difficult task.

Despite these concerns, Neuralink claims they are on track to begin human trials within the year, although it should be noted that the company's previous timeline of targeting clinical applications within 1-2 years was stated back in 2019. If they do commence human trials, it will be a significant milestone for the company, and a big step towards its goal of creating a seamless brain-machine interface.

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