Neuralink gets approval: what does Musk intend to do with our brains?
With Neuralink, tech billionaire Elon Musk wants to connect the human brain directly to computers. If this succeeds, paralyzed people could learn to walk again. And Musk’s vision goes even further: memories should be stored and even transferred to a new body. But wwhile the USThe health authority FDA has only now allowed the start-up to carry out clinical studies on humans, which means that the competition is a step ahead. But what is behind the company? The most important questions and answers:
How long has Neuralink been around?
Tech billionaire and visionary Musk founded the neurotechnology company Neuralink in 2016. The startup only became known to the general public a year later, when the “Wall Street Journal” reported on it. In addition to Musk, eight other investors belong to the founding team, including some neuroscientists. The first major showing came in 2019, when Musk and other members of the executive team showcased the technology in a livestreamed presentation. Besides Musk, only one of the original founding team is now on board. Most recently, Paul Merolla, who was responsible for Neuralink’s chip design, left the company in July last year.
What is the idea of Neuralink?
The idea is to read human thoughts through technical circuits, process them and translate them into movement or language. The company is developing a device that is inserted into a person’s brain, where it records and stimulates brain activity. A hole the size of a coin is drilled in the skull. The so-called link is connected directly to the human tissue in the head with fine lines. External devices should then be able to be controlled wirelessly. On the outside, apart from a small scar under the hair, nothing should be visible later, Musk said in 2020 at the demonstration of a prototype. In addition, the procedure is painless and you can go home after a day. Using Bluetooth technology, Neuralink is able to make the activity of neurons visible and audible completely wirelessly. The implant is to be charged once a day via induction.
In which fields can the technology be used?
Successful networking could, for example, allow paralyzed people to control an exoskeleton with their thoughts or people with locked-in syndrome to communicate with their outside world. According to Musk, the brain implants could also work “like a Fitbit in the head” because the different sensors monitor the health of the users and warn in good time of irregularities.
But that’s not all: Neuralink should also make it possible to download human memories onto machines, store them, retrieve them and then transfer them to a new body. “Obviously this sounds more and more like an episode of the dystopian sci-fi series Black-Mirror, but basically if you have a complete brain interface you could upload anything that’s stored in your memory. You could basically have your memories as a backup save and restore,” Musk gushed about his vision at a presentation. In the future, everyone should be free to “tune” themselves with such a chip. “Elon Musk doesn’t know how the brain works or even where it is! You can’t just extract memories like juice like he wants,” said neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis of Duke University in North Carolina. Ethical and data protection issues have also not yet been clarified.
How far is the research?
Several institutions and companies have been researching brain-computer interfaces (BCI) for years. The innovation with Neuralink is that there is no cabling. This can prevent additional complications. So far, Neuralink has only been able to test on animals. The presentation featured monkeys using the brain chip to play simple video games or move a cursor on a screen. The technology has also been tested on pigs.
What about Neuralink’s schedule?
The billionaire is known for announcing ambitious goals for his companies – some of which will never be realized. He was also behind schedule with Neuralink: Musk announced in July 2019 that he would be able to carry out the first tests on people the following year. After the US health authority FDA rejected Neuralink’s application for human clinical trials in early 2022 due to significant safety concerns, the company has now taken an important step forward with the approval. However, the search for subjects for the clinical study has not yet started, said Neuralink.
Are other companies working on such chips?
Neuralink isn’t the only company. Competitors who are also working on brain interfaces are even further along. In July, Synchron announced that it was the first company to have a corresponding chip implanted in the brain of a US patient. In Australia, the company has already completed trials involving four people. According to the manufacturer, the computer-brain interface called Stentrode can receive and send neuronal signals. With the implant, patients could have sent messages and shopped online, for example. Musk is said to have already inquired about a possible investment with Synchron.
Is everything still a dream of the future?
So far, no company researching in the BCI area has received final market approval for a product. Swiss researchers recently succeeded in getting a Dutchman, who was paralyzed after an accident, to walk again using electronic sensors in his head, spine and legs.