The immediate objective is to help patients suffering from paralysis. The goal to get the paralysed person to type at 40 words per minute.
Elon Musk’s Neuralink, the secretive start-up company, has gone public and unveiled its objective to implant paralysed patients with electrodes that will enable them to work computers or smartphones with their minds.
Neuralink – Elon Musk is the CEO – has been silent about its work since it was formed in 2017. Now it has allowed a reporter from the New York Times to see exactly what it has been doing and where it’s at. It demonstrated its technology on a laboratory rat, with performance levels that exceed today’s systems in terms of data transfer.
Neuralink will seek US Food and Drug Administration approval to start clinical trials on humans as early as next year, Neuralink President Max Hodak said. The proposal is to drill four 8mm holes into paralysed patients’ skulls and insert implants that will give them the ability to control computers and smartphones using their thoughts.
“A lot of people have written this off like it’s impossible,” says Hodak. “There will be great things to come in this field in the next decade, and they should take it seriously.”
Neuralink, based in San Francisco, showed the reporter it can record a rat’s brain activity via thousands of tiny electrodes surgically implanted alongside the animal’s neurons and synapses.
The company has created flexible “threads” that can be implanted into the brain without causing damage like existing techniques. The “threads”, thinner than human hair, can transfer a large amount of data, states a white paper credited to Elon Musk and Neutralink.
Neuralink CEO Musk believes millions of people will eventually elect to become cybernetically enhanced.
“This is going to sound pretty weird, but ultimately, we will achieve symbiosis with artificial intelligence,” Musk said at a news conference in San Francisco. “This is not a mandatory thing. It is a thing you can choose to have if you want. This is something that I think will be really important on a civilisation-level scale.”
Neuralink has built a robot that can see into holes drilled in the skull and then place the wires precisely. Each wire is one-quarter the width of a human hair and laced with dozens of electrodes. Their design and composition make them sturdy enough to pass through brain tissue, according to Neuralink. The lenses and computer vision software help the robot avoid hitting blood vessels, reducing damage to the brain and formation of scar tissue.
“Because these things are so thin and flexible, the idea is that they move with the tissue instead of tearing the tissue,” says Neuralink researcher Philip Sabes, Bloomberg reported.
In a research paper, Neuralink said it has performed at least 19 surgeries on animals with its robots and successfully placed the wires, which it calls “threads”, in about 87% of operations.
If the approvals come through, Neuralink’s electrodes, once placed in the holes in a patient’s skull, will register brain activity and relay it to a small device implanted behind the ear that transmits the data to a computer.
Hodak said the first surgeries will take place under general anaesthesia, but he hopes local anaesthesia will suffice in the future.
“We will painlessly laser-drill the holes into the skull, place the threads, plug the hole with the sensor, and then you go home,” he said. “It’ll basically be an experience like getting Lasik.”
If all goes as planned, Hodak says, post-op patients will be able to input words into a text message or email simply by thinking them, and to move a cursor with a mouse and navigate web pages mentally, too.
Looking into the distant future, Neuralink believes people who have the surgery may be able to download a new language into their brain, or digitally exchange thoughts with someone else.
“I’ve been interested in this since I saw The Matrix in fifth grade,” said Hodak.
While Musk’s visions for the future are at times deemed eccentric, the immediate objective of Neuralink is to help patients suffering from paralysis. The goal to get the paralysed person to type at 40 words per minute.