Moving things or controlling machines with the power of the mind is stuff that only Hollywood film aliens are able to do as yet. But the Elon Musk-led neurotechnology company Neuralink has already made a monkey type out a request for snacks by following colour-coded computer keys — the monkey, named Sake, did so without putting a single simian finger on the virtual keyboard visible on the screen. The tech that made this possible has now been approved for human clinical trials by the US Food and Drug Administration.
The USFDA approval was given yesterday after crossing many hurdles. A triumphant Neuralink announced on social media that recruitment for human clinical trials would begin soon. The post, which got nearly 20 million views within a few hours, was retweeted by Musk.
Sceptical responses came from many people, including Councillor David Thomas of Torfaen County Borough in Wales, United Kingdom. After congratulating Neuralink on the approval and praising it for “amazing” work, he expressed his doubts about the end-goal of the project. Thomas said in his post: “However I have this sneaky suspicion that @elonmusk is looking for eternal life via Neuralink so he will be able to see his ultimate goal of the colonisation of Mars.”
The simplest explanation of the hyper-futuristic tech, named the Link, is that it is a brain implant that enables the implant recipient to directly interface with computers without using hands. In theory, this could vastly improve life for those who have a debilitating condition, such as blindness or severe loss of movement after a stroke. In reality, the ramifications of a person being able to connect with a computer without touching it raise too many questions.
In May 2020, talking on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast, Musk was asked to describe what exactly would happen if someone got the Neuralink device installed. Musk responded: “It [is] basically implanted in your skull.”
He laughed a bit and explained that the procedure involved taking out “a chunk of skull”, putting the device there, and inserting the electrode threads. He said that the device could “interface basically anywhere” in the brain, and restore eyesight, even if someone had lost their optic nerve. Musk said in the podcast that the brain implant—it is about one inch in diameter — could “fix almost anything that is wrong with the brain”.
Neuralink, co-founded by Musk in 2016, has been perfecting the implant surgery with robotics. But there are still concerns about the safety of the lithium battery that powers the implant, and about implant wires damaging any part of the brain. There have also been concerns about how Neuralink has treated animals used in experiments, with an estimated 1,500 of them killed since 2018.
The company’s social media feeds put out endless posts to establish that it is a safe procedure and that all the animals used in experiments were treated well.