Neuralink’s brain computing interface (BCI) product consists of a tiny device and a wire lattice of electrodes that is meant to measure the electric signals in the brain and allow a person to control a piece of technology with their mind. The company uses a robot to surgically embed the device into the brain.
The goal of BCIs, according to Musk, is to allow people with disabilities or debilitating conditions to interact with technology by communicating through thoughts, though he has indicated he believes that Neuralink can achieve more, beyond medical applications.
In a flashy event held Wednesday evening, Neuralink co-founder Musk touted that the company has submitted documents to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and that he hopes Neuralink will be cleared to start its first human trial in the next six months.
We are now confident that the Neuralink device is ready for humans, so timing is a function of working through the FDA approval process
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 1, 2022
Neuralink is far from the only company working on these kinds of brain chips, and most of the advancements in this emerging field have been accomplished in academic settings, Bloomberg reported. BCI technology has been researched and advanced by scientists for decades, but a recent wave of investment from venture capitalists has pushed the field forward rapidly in the past years.
BCI start-up Synchron beat Neuralink to human clinical trials with its brain chip in July 2021. In a promotional video on its website, the company says that its “brain bluetooth” has already allowed two people experiencing paralysis to email, text, shop and bank on their own.
Critics of Neuralink have said that Musk overhypes the advances made by the company and over-promises what its technology is capable of achieving in the near term, casting doubt over whether the company will hit its six-month target for human trials, Bloomberg reported.
However, Neuralink stands out among other BCI ventures because it is simultaneously developing implants for the spinal cord and eyes to restore body movement and vision to people with disabilities — whereas most other companies in the space tend to focus specifically on brain, ocular, or spinal cord implants individually.
“As miraculous as that may sound, we are confident that it is possible to restore full-body functionality to someone who has a severed spinal cord,” Musk said at the event.
Onward Inc., a company specializing in spinal cord implants to treat paralysis, recently partnered with Swiss scientists on a study that resulted in all paralyzed participants being able to take steps on a treadmill the day after their surgeries.
Musk launched Neuralink over five years ago alongside seven other co-founders, only one of whom remains, engineer Dongjin “DJ” Seo. In 2021, Neuralink’s president Max Hodox left the company and then invested in its rival Synchron a year later.
Neuralink has so far tested its product only on animals and last year it released a video showing that its brain implant could allow monkeys to play the video game Pong. The use of animals in Neuralink’s product testing angered animal activists, especially after the company acknowledged that a monkey had died during testing.
The core idea behind the application of BCIs, even in medical settings, has raised numerous ethical questions. But Musk has emphasized the technology’s non-medical uses, over fears that artificial intelligence (AI) will one day become smarter than humans.
“How do we mitigate that risk? At a species level?” Musk asked during Wednesday’s Neuralink event, according to CNN. “Even in a benign scenario, where the AI is very, very benevolent — then how do we go along for the ride?”
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