Two monkeys were apparently controlling computer cursors with their brains during a presentation showing the Neuralink implant, which Elon Musk believes will one day connect the human brain to a computer.
Others first documented the feat on a human in 2006, before YouTube and with far more expensive hardware, tethering patients to a computer with a cable.
Musk’s presentation Wednesday night added nothing appreciable to previous demos of the device. He went on to say that the implant could allow paralyzed patients to control computers outside of a laboratory setting. However, experts in the field questioned whether the filing represented significant progress with the device, especially given the breadth of work being done across the country.
“These are incremental gains,” Daniel Yoshor, a neurosurgeon and neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, who has experimented with similar devices, said after viewing the presentation. “While the hardware is remarkable, it does not represent a significant advance in repairing or improving brain function.”
He went on to say that while Neuralink’s engineering effort is significant, the company’s results are not.
The device cannot be sold because the company has not received FDA approval. Musk said Wednesday that the company had submitted most of his documentation to the regulator to get approval to implant his device in a human. He had hoped for a human trial in six months, but any steps toward human trials would be up to the FDA after a thorough examination of the dangers of surgical implantation and the safety of the device.
Musk, a billionaire, originally scheduled the event for late October but pushed it back during one of the most turbulent months of his career. He has just completed his on-again-off-again acquisition of Twitter, which has consumed much of his attention, and generated some controversy, over his management of the social media company.
As Musk juggles that and other responsibilities (he now oversees Tesla and SpaceX), Neuralink is emerging from a time of transition. Max Hodak, the company’s president and one of its co-founders, resigned last year to start his own company in the industry. Neuralink’s formal CEO is Jared Birchall, a money manager who controls Musk’s family office.
Photo courtesy: Neuralink
Leaders in the field of brain-computer interface technology have been keen on Neuralink’s investment in a device with no external cables or hardware. However, many of them have been disturbed and disappointed by Mr. Musk’s presentations thus far.
A 2021 Neuralink presentation of a monkey playing Pong with its mind was comparable to a primate demonstration at Brown University in 2001, albeit with a significantly cruder setup.
Mr Musk stated in a 2020 presentation featuring a pig with the implant that the technology could “solve” problems like paralysis and insomnia, and can even provide the user with “superhuman eyesight.” To scientists who are only focused on returning basic functions, such as writing, speaking, or picking up a fork, to those who have lost them due to spinal cord injury or a grim prognosis, such apps sound like science fiction. For such patients, the benefits outweigh the minor but substantial risk of brain surgery.
“No one is talking about implanting people without disabilities,” said Cindy Chestek, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Michigan whose team focuses on restoring function in amputees.
Mr Musk stated late Wednesday that his technology’s ambitions include allowing the blind to see and bringing “full-body functionality” to someone with a damaged spinal cord. The public applauded, but the statements do not reflect the state of the field.
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