San Francisco: This week Elon Musk unveiled his most sci-fi project thus far: a computer chip connected to exceptionally slender wires with electrodes on them, all of which is meant to be embedded in a person’s brain by a surgical robot. The implant would connect wirelessly to a small behind-the-ear receiver that could communicate with a computer.
Musk hopes the implant, created by his brain-computer interface startup Neuralink, could one day help quadriplegics control smartphones, and perhaps even endow users with a sort of telepathy. Like existing brain-machine interfaces, it would collect electrical signals sent out by the brain and interpret them as actions.
Neuralink, which was founded in 2016, has already tested an early, wired version of this implant in rats (and Musk indicated it has enabled a monkey to control a computer with his brain, too); Musk said human trials could start by the end of next year, though the company doesn’t yet have approval from the US Food and Drug Administration for such a study. (And, it should be noted, Musk, who is also CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, has a history of making outlandish technological claims: for instance, the he said in a recent interview that getting humans to Mars in 4 years “sounds doable.”)
Neuralink’s promise of a brain-connected device that looks as nondescript as a hearing aid — the kind of thing you could hide with hair or a hat — is exciting to scientists who have spent years working on this technology.
How a brain chip could help
The idea of a brain-machine interface is not new; scientists have been working on them for decades, and they have been implanted and tested in animals such as monkeys as well as in people. There are some FDA-approved deep-brain stimulation devices meant for, among other things, controlling tremors in people with Parkinson’s disease, and several tech companies have worked on their own methods for connecting the brain to computers: Facebook, for instance, has worked on a non-invasive device to let you send text messages by thinking.
Yet these efforts tend to be confined to labs for a number of reasons: they’re expensive, bulky, require training (of both the user and the computer), and, when it comes to an under-the-skull implant, the person outfitted with it generally must be physically tethered to a computer for it to work.
Virginia de Sa, a professor studying brain-computer interfaces at the University of California San Diego, said several of Neuralink’s ideas sound “very promising,” such as the use of very fine wires to implant electrodes in the brain — the thinner they are, she said, the less damage they’ll do to the brain, and, hopefully, the longer they’ll last.
It’s still brain surgery
During his presentation, Musk said Neuralink aims to make the surgery for the company’s implant “equivalent to a LASIK type of thing where you sit down, a machine does its thing, and you can walk away within a few hours,” all without a hospital stay.
He spoke about the wires that would be implanted under a person’s skull as threads; a robot for implanting them would bypass blood vessels and cause “minimal trauma,” he claimed.
It sounds simpler than the way people receive implants today. Essentially, as things work now, the skull is cut open, the brain is exposed, chips are installed, connectors are mounted to the skull, and the head is stitched up.
Who will want one?
For now, Neuralink said it is working on a brain chip to help with serious medical conditions, but Musk eventually wants it to appeal to all kinds of people. Several experts said they can’t envision most people clamoring for Neuralink’s brain chip, however.
“It’s really like a sort of a science-fiction vision that gets some people excited about it, but I don’t see the market for something like that,” said Andrew Hires, an assistant professor of neurobiology at USC. “The technological development would have to go so far beyond what would currently be capable with a device like this.”