On Friday August 28th, 2020 Elon Musk demonstrated the Neuralink device (or just ‘link’) on three live pigs and we also got a glimpse of what the device ‘might’ be able to do in the future (more on that later).
Elon Musk’s Neuralink startup, launched in 2016, captures electrical activity in the brain using a tiny chip with flexible wires or ‘threads’ (4-6 micrometers in width) that are inserted into different parts of the brain. The company received approximately $158 million in funding ($100 million from Musk himself) and has 100 employees. The immediate short-term goal is to treat movement disorders and paralysis resulting from neurodegenerative diseases such as ALS. The long-term goal is to treat blindness, deafness, & memory loss.
In the live demo, Musk described the Neuralink as a ‘Fitbit in your skull’. It is much more than a Fitbit in your skull and I’ll explain why.
The Link is a sealed, implanted device that processes, stimulates, and transmits neural signals from the thousands of threads dangling from it and connected to different brain regions. It is charged inductively--wirelessly with an external charger similar to the ones we use for our smartphones today. Not only can it receive electrical signals from a group of neurons but it can also stimulate groups of neurons via a short electrical pulse. Let’s take the simple act of walking as an example. Walking involves a coordinated set of muscle movements. Each muscle contraction is brought about by a signal from the spinal cord that originated from specific motor neurons in the brain. You can imagine that if each motor neuron firing was linked to a flash of light, we would have a symphony of lights flashing in different locations within milliseconds of each other and in a perfect coordinated fashion just to get our legs walking.
Now let’s assume there is a break in the connection between the motor neurons firing away in the brain and the spinal cord like we see in paralysis. How does the Link fix that problem?
The Link first needs to record the perfectly orchestrated and timed firing of the different motor neurons when a person walks as electrical signal spikes. It will automatically know the location because it knows which of the thousand of threads each electrical signal spike came from. Armed with this spatial and temporal mapping of brain activity, it can theoretically send the brain signals to ANOTHER DEVICE implanted in the spinal cord where the original break in signal occurred and stimulate movement in native limbs or stimulate a smart prosthetic limb to move.
The Link can also send an electrical pulse to the brain neurons which itself would have tremendous applications--potentially in rehabilitation of stroke victims who have damaged neurons in the brain itself instead of the spine.
Currently, Musk proved that it can record and store the signals. That’s the first step. Next step is to use machine learning to predict the right sequence of neuronal firing for any body movement which he successfully demonstrated when he put Gertrude on a treadmill. So The second step is complete. The third step is to replicate this in humans for which the Link has received FDA breakthrough device designation which means it can start human trials as early as this year!
The Neurosurgical Robot is a surgery robot that Musk is hoping would automate the placement of the Link without the need of anesthesia or a doctor frankly. Because the threads are so small, it wouldn’t be practical for a human to try inserting them, hence why he built a robot to do it. Additionally, the robot will be able to place all these tiny threads with minimal bleeding because it will actively avoid tiny blood vessels through computer vision.
The Marketing Guru: As promised, an audience member asked if the Link could one day copy someone’s memories and true to Elon Musk’s typical response to any theoretical questions--he said that YES, the Link will be able to download a person’s memories, store them, and then ultimately download them into a new body. To be clear, this is marketing fodder for future investors because ‘stored’ memory is a whole different problem to solve versus ‘active’ firing of motor neurons. Very big leap from one to the other. Having said that, there was a black mirror episode that shows how such a technology could be used.
You can view the full Neuralink demo here.