Musk’s Neuralink aims to implant devices in human brains in 2020

Neuralink, a San Francisco-based neurotechnology company co-founded by industrialist Elon Musk, has revealed its designs and ambitious plans for the future in a livestreamed presentation


Neuralink, a San Francisco-based neurotechnology company co-founded by industrialist Elon Musk, has revealed its designs and ambitious plans for the future in a livestreamed presentation.

The company aims to develop brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) which could be implanted into humans with severely limited mobility, such as due to neurological conditions, in order to allow them to control devices without moving. In April 2017, it was reported that the company’s long term goal is to realise transhumanism to achieve “superhuman cognition” through BCIs.

Neuralink is one of many groups developing BCIs. Cyberkinetics, working with researchers at Brown University, developed the first system which successfully allowed a person with paralysis to control a cursor (BrainGate), and in April 2017, Facebook revealed that it is dabbling in BCI research with the aim of enabling people to type without moving.

Neuralink president Max Hodak acknowledged that Neuralink was building on decades of work on technology which directly interacts with the brain.

Neuralink’s work has been kept carefully under wraps for the past three years, despite Musk’s reputation as a colourful and vocal public figure occasionally prone to oversharing. The company’s designs and targets for the near future have now been revealed by Musk and colleagues in a livestreamed presentation at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. vv

According to the presentation, the company has developed flexible neural ‘threads’ just four to six µm in diameter: much thinner than a human hair. This flexible design could prove to be an improvement on existing devices which tend to use arrays of rigid needles. Using flexible polymer threads could allow Neuralink’s arrays to adjust to changes to the brain over time, minimising damage to the brain.

According to a non-peer reviewed paper released to coincide with the presentation, these threads could also transfer higher volumes of data than existing devices. Eventually, Musk hopes that this data could be transferred wirelessly rather than via the wired USB-C connection required at this stage. A BCI array (or ‘lace’) could have 3072 electrodes distributed over use 96 threads to target specific areas of the brain. These electrodes can then monitor the activity of 1000 neurons, and use machine learning to analyse this activity. This array has already been implanted in laboratory rats.

“We are a brain in a vat, and that vat is our skull,” Musk commented.

Neuralink has also presented a robotic device which automatically embeds these arrays under the supervision of a neurosurgeon. This robot could insert six threads per minute while avoiding blood vessels.

However, Neuralink scientists said that they hoped that eventually laser beams (rather than drills) could be used to get inside the skull through a painless, non-invasive process comparable to laser eye surgery.

Musk played down possible fears about human brains being intimately connected to computers, commenting that: “It’s not like suddenly we will have this incredible neural lace and [it] will take over people’s brains.” Instead he said that he wished to create technology that allowed for brains to merge with AI for human benefit: “I think this is going to be important at a civilisation-wide scale. Even under a benign AI, we will be left behind. With a high bandwidth [BCI], we will have the option to go along for the ride,” he said.

Musk has repeatedly warned that rapid, unchecked development of AI could prove to be an existential threat in the near future. He founded an AI ethics research group, Open AI, which he stepped down from in February 2018 in order to avoid any conflict of interest (given the increasing focus on AI at Tesla, his EV venture).

During a Q&A session at the end of the presentation, Musk revealed that “a monkey has been able to control a computer with its brain” and that primate experiments were ongoing with scientists at the University of California-Davis. After being playfully admonished by Hodak for disclosing the information, Musk joked that “the monkey is going to come out of the bag”.

Musk added that: “We hope to have this in a human patient by the end of next year.”

The company has applied to the US Food and Drug Administration to begin trialling this device, and – if all goes according to plan – a first clinical trial will be performed alongside neuroscientists at Stanford University. Matthew McDougall, head neurosurgeon at Neuralink, said that this would involve implanting four Neuralink arrays in the brains of patients with serious unmet conditions.

More in Digital