Elon Musk’s brain computer interface company Neuralink has given a monkey the ability to control a computer with its brain.
In a video Neuralink posted on Friday, a monkey named Pager is taught how to use a simple program with a joystick, enabling two chips implanted in its brain to decode the electrical signals sent when Pager intends on moving the joystick in a certain direction.
We then see Pager successfully controlling the same program even though the joystick is removed.
He can also use his mind to play a version of the proto video game Pong.
“By modelling the relationship between different patterns of neural activity and intended movement directions, we can build a model that can predict the direction and speed of an upcoming or intended movement,” Neuralink said in a blog post.
“We can go further than simply predicting the most likely intended movement given the current pattern of brain activity: we can use these predictions to control, in real time, the movements of a computer cursor.”
The device, an N1 Link, digitises voltages from its 1,024 electrodes that contain signals neurons near to where the chips are implanted: in this case, one in Pager’s left and right motor cortex.
Neuron activity is measured in this way by on-board algorithms that detect and aggregate “spikes” before transmitting the data off to a nearby computer via bluetooth which can be reinterpreted to govern behaviour like moving a cursor or Pong paddle on a screen.
First @Neuralink product will enable someone with paralysis to use a smartphone with their mind faster than someone using thumbs— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 9, 2021
It’s the first demonstration of a Neuralink device since last year’s unusual livestream event in which Musk showed off pigs that had been implanted with Links.
The event from last August also reiterated Neuralink’s plans to develop a surgery robot to streamline the process of installing these small chips inside people’s skulls.
While the devices have not yet been tested on human subjects – or if they have, Neuralink hasn’t publicly disclosed that – Musk said the first product, when it’s released, “will enable someone with paralysis to use a smartphone with their mind faster than someone using thumbs”.
“Later versions will be able to shunt signals from Neuralinks in brain to Neuralinks in body motor/sensory neuron clusters, thus enabling, for example, paraplegics to walk again,” he said.
“The device is implanted flush with skull and charges wirelessly, so you look and feel totally normal.”
Once again, Musk is promising a lot from his futuristic technology, but it could be that the man who has made commercially successful businesses out of reusable rockets for cheap space flights and self-driving electric cars might have more substance to his claims than just pure hype.
Neuroscience or Silicon Valley hype
But there remain sceptics like University of Pennsylvania assistant professor of medical ethics Anna Wexler who tried to debunk some of the claims of brain-computer interface (BCI) manufacturers in a well-timed blog post last week.
Wexler thinks BCIs will offer little value for the average consumer, especially if they offer functionality many of us already have by using touchscreens and keyboards.
“While typing with my brain may be a neat party trick, in a gimmicky ‘look, ma, no hands’ sort of way, will it be practical for healthy individuals to use their focused, conscious attention to move cursors and peck out letters on a keyboard?” Wexler asks.
“A neurotech device would need to demonstrate superiority over current methods of human-computer interaction to gain market traction.”
She also touches on privacy concerns inherent in using supposedly mind-reading devices developed by large companies like Facebook but is more troubled by the potential for Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to sell hyped-up devices that do far less than claimed.
“We’re still smack in the middle of a neurotech bubble fuelled by venture capital, one that will inevitably yield an increasing number of prophecies about our sci-fi future,” Wexler said.
“So, the next time you hear a tech entrepreneur predict that brain-computer interfaces will liberate humanity, remember that these devices are not yet on – or in – our heads, and may not be anytime soon.”