Neuralink, the neurotech startup spearheaded by Chief Twit Elon Musk, held their much-ballyhooed and oft-delayed tech demo on Wednesday night—promising a lot while showing little in the way of progress towards their lofty promises.
Musk was joined on stage by numerous Neuralink engineers and researchers to explain the technology they’ve been working on for the past few years. This included the N1 link, the company’s wireless brain-computer interface (BCI); and the R1, a robot that the company said would be able to implant an N1 in a human brain. The bot was present at the event conducting a simulated surgery on a dummy while presentations occurred.
The team also announced that the N1 chip was capable of being wirelessly charged, which would be a massive improvement in most current BCI technology which typically requires the devices to be tethered.
“I could have a Neuralink device implanted right now and you wouldn’t even know,” Musk joked, later adding, “In one of these demos I will.”
However, Musk announced that it would still be at least half a year until Neuralink would be able to begin human trials. “We’ve submitted most of our paperwork to the FDA. In about six months, we should be able to have our first Neuralink in humans,” he said.
The demo was initially slated for Oct. 31 but was delayed by Musk just eight days before it was set to launch. He did not give a reason for the schedule push. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the event itself was also delayed by more than half an hour before it started. Musk then took to the stage and stumbled through an awkward, meandering monologue where he touched on topics from AI, to how BCIs work, to something about how humans are all cyborgs.
“The overarching goal of Neuralink is to create a whole brain interface,” Musk explained, later using a photo of the character Rick Sanchez from the TV show Rick and Morty to illustrate his point. “So a generalized input-output device that in the long term that could interface with every aspect of your brain, and in the short term can interface with any section of your brain and solve things that cause debilitating issues for people.”
Musk also made a number of very lofty promises that should be taken with a Cybertruck-sized grain of salt if his history of overpromising and under delivering is any indication. This included the idea that the Neuralink will be able to restore vision even to those who were born blind, and also that it could restore mobility back to those who have had their spinal cord severed.
He mentioned that the N1 would allow patients to use it wirelessly and remotely in most any setting outside of a lab—which would be groundbreaking if it, you know, actually ever happens. Rajesh Rao, Hwang Professor and Director of the Center for Neurotechnology at the University of Washington, told The Daily Beast that this would represent a significant leap forward for BCI technologies—and showcase something that has truly never been done before.
“An advance [BCI] would be in terms of whether the person can do this at home,” Rao said. “Can they do this arbitrarily at any location? Can they do it in a restaurant? That advance would mean it’s a usable, on-the-go implant as opposed to just doing it in the laboratory.”
Neuralink’s latest “show and tell” comes more than a year after its last public demo, when it unveiled a video of a monkey playing the game “Pong” using just the signals of its brain and the Neuralink implant.
Wednesday evening’s livestream provided a tiny step forward for a beleaguered company that has faced numerous delays (including tonight’s presentation) and high-level resignations from company founders over the years. In 2019, Musk announced that the company was planning to receive FDA approval for human trials of its brain chip in 2020. However, those trials still hadn’t occurred by late 2021.
In August, Reuters reported that Musk was frustrated with the company’s slow pace of progress—especially after BCI competitor Synchron received FDA approval for human trials first and successfully implanted its less-invasive chip in four paralyzed patients in Australia. This spurred the SpaceX founder to reach out to Synchron CEO and founder Thomas Oxley about a potential investment in Neuralink.
And while the Musk-led venture is typically tight-lipped about what goes on behind the scenes, there are hints that there’s a fair bit of chaos and dysfunction. In July, another one of the company’s co-founders left—leaving it with just two of its original eight founders.
Meanwhile, Neuralink was rocked with scandal earlier this year after an animal rights group sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture claiming that the company was facilitating the torture and mutilation of its 23 lab monkeys.
The company later released a statement confirming that it had in fact euthanized several of the monkeys following brain experiments, but not as much as the group claimed.
Now, Neuralink finally has been able to achieve their long-stated goal of human brain implants—which is also sure to raise the hackles of ethics experts, who have already sounded the alarm about an Elon Musk brain chip.
“There’s a whole bunch of ethical, societal, and social justice implications that one needs to be cognizant of,” Rao explained. “We hope the companies are going to also partner with neuroethics organizations to make sure that the advances in technology are also matched by important considerations in ethics and in other issues that have to do with human identity and societal implications.”
For many BCI researchers and advocates, though, the Neuralink announcement is likely still a welcome sign of much-needed progress. The devices can potentially change the lives of millions of people who are paralyzed, have limited mobility, or have neurological impairments due to diseases such as ALS.
“There’s a lot of promise now for therapeutic uses in terms of stroke, spinal cord injury, and neuropsychiatric conditions and so on,” Rao said. “Ultimately, it’s great to see both investment from industry and from federal research grants and academic labs. There’s a bright future ahead.”
Neuralink did not respond when reached for comment.