What would the lives of people with disabilities look like if they could control devices with brain implants? This question has occupied researchers since the 1960s. Neuralink CEO Elon Musk promises to start the first clinical trials within six months. Can we believe the multi-billionaire now that he uses his twitter platform to burn down scientists?
According to Musk, Neuralink is busy with the paperwork requested by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for a human clinical trial. Tech magazine Wired reports this based on a recent live stream in which Musk and Neuralink scientists explain their latest plans. The intended trial should start within six months.
Neuralink will initially focus on two groups: the blind and people with paralysis. The first group should be able to see again with the help of a neural implant, even if this was never possible before. “We believe that you can also restore sight to people who were born blind,” Musk said. The second group should be able to operate digital devices, such as a smartphone or tablet, via a brain chip.
Such functionalities are still a long way from Neuralink’s vision of the future. The human brain enters into a complete symbiosis with computers and artificial intelligence. Those interested will have to make do with a demo video in which Neuralink manages to evoke a visual sensation -read: flash of light- in the brain of a monkey.
“We’ve been working hard for a first human application,” Musk said of the next step. “But obviously we are extremely careful and we want to make sure it works before we put a chip in a human being.”
Neural implants, referred to in English as brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) , have been the subject of research since the 1960s. Basically, the technique starts with small electrodes in the human brain that ‘read’ signals from neurons. Computer software can translate these signals into actions, such as moving a cursor, wheelchair or robot arm. For the time being, a very limited number of test subjects have been able to become acquainted with the technique. None have proved commercially viable to date.
The latter has never been an obstacle for tech entrepreneur Musk in his business activities. He founded Neuralink in 2016 with great promises. For the time being, Neuralink is also wrestling with all kinds of practical questions. Neuralink has developed its own surgical robot to implant the wires of the electrodes. In a test set-up, the robot can insert dozens of wires in fifteen minutes. Because of its speed and precision, the surgical robot is an important step according to experts.
According to Musk, this also applies to the further reduction of the electrodes. They are no more than a few red blood cells wide. “I could have a Neuralink wires implanted right now without anyone noticing,” Musk said in the live stream. “Speaking hypothetically then. Maybe I will participate in one of the upcoming demonstrations.”
Tough talk. The question is what Musk’s word is worth. For now, he seems busier with the equally controversial and noisy takeover of Twitter than with his other business concerns. Add to that the fact that he now also uses the medium for attacks on scientists such as Anthony Fauci (‘ My pronouns are Prosecute/Fauci’ ) and it is clear that his reputation as a tech-driven genius has taken a serious blow.
Of course, the competition does not lose sleep over that. In fact, while Musk is shouting loudly, he is working hard. Former Neuralink CEO Max Hodax, reportedly fired for slow progress in trials, has now raised $160 million for his own neurotech company .
His promise to the patient: photons instead of invasive surgery. Precision Neuroscience, founded by Benjamin Rapoport , also aims to reduce patient discomfort. Rapoport is also a former Neuralink CEO. Its thin, flexible implant requires only an incision rather than a hole in the skull. The company expects to get the green light from the FDA for a human trial in 2023 .
Competitor Synchron is even a step further. The Synchron solution should help ALS patients with tasks such as e-mailing, banking and shopping. Recently, the first test subject managed to send a tweet using this device. If that isn’t irony.