Elon Musk's Neuralink to embed microchips in people's brain and to perform brain surgery
Elon Musk is known for his famous companies such as Tesla and SpaceX, but the billionaire also has some unusual ventures. In one of them, he says he once started pushing for a "symbiosis" between the human brain and artificial intelligence.
Neuralink is Musk's neural interface technology company. The company is creating a device that could be embedded in the human brain, where it could both record brain activity and potentially stimulate it.
While Musk likes to talk about his futuristic vision for this technology, it has several potential medical applications in the short term.
The company's first major public demonstration didn't take place until 2019 when Elon Musk and other members of the executive team demonstrated Neuralink's designs during a live presentation.
Neuralink is developing two types of hardware. The first is a chip that is implanted in a person's skull and electrodes diverge into their brain. The chip that Neuralink is developing is the size of a coin and will be embedded in the patient's skull. A number of tiny wires, each about 20 times thinner than a human hair, diverge from the chip into the patient's brain.
The wires have 1024 electrodes that can both monitor brain activity and, in theory, electrically stimulate the brain. All this data is transmitted wirelessly via a chip to computers where researchers can study it.
The second project is a robot that can automatically implant the chip. The robot will work by using a rigid needle to pierce the flexible wires coming from the Neuralink chip into the human brain, which is a bit like a sewing machine.
Musk said the machine could make implanting Neuralink electrodes as easy as LASIK eye surgery. While this is a bold statement, neuroscientists have previously told Insider that the machine has some very promising features.
Professor Andrew Hires highlighted a feature that automatically adjusts the needle to compensate for the movement of the patient's brain when the brain moves during surgery along with the person's breathing and heartbeat.
The robot in its current form is eight feet tall, and while Neuralink is developing the underlying technology.
In 2020, the company demonstrated one of its chips working on a pig named Gertrude during a live demonstration. The demonstration was a proof of concept and showed how the chip was able to accurately predict the position of Gertrude's limbs as she walked on a treadmill, as well as registering neural activity as the pig sniffed for food. Musk said the pig lived with a chip embedded in its skull for two months.
Professor Andrew Jackson, an expert in neural interfaces at Newcastle University, told Insider after the 2020 presentation that the wireless relay from the Neuralink chip could potentially have a big impact on the welfare of experimental animals in science, as most neural interfaces currently used on experimental animals involve wires sticking out of their skin.
The company went a step further with animal demonstrations in April 2021, when it showed a monkey playing video games. Neuralink released a video showing a macaque monkey named Pager playing video games, such as Pong, for the reward of a banana shake.
Musk said the company hopes to start implanting its chips in humans in 2022 - two years later than he had originally hoped.
Improved neural interface technology such as Neuralink could help better study and treat severe neurological conditions such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.
Professor Andrew Hires told Insider that another application could allow people to control robotic prostheses with their minds.
The company has hinted that the first real application of its chip will give paralyzed people the ability to control phones and laptops.
During the Wall Street Journal's CEO Summit in December 2021, Musk said the first people Neuralink hopes to implant its devices with will be people who have severe spinal-cord injuries like tetraplegics, quadriplegic.
Elon Musk also believes that in the long term, the chip could be used to combine human consciousness with artificial intelligence, although experts are sceptical.