Scientists have been trying for decades to merge the biological and mechanical with limited success. In between tweeting about exploding rockets and electric cars, Elon Musk aims to change that with a company called Neuralink. The secretive company has just released a new video demonstrating its brain-machine link technology. It features a monkey drinking smoothies and playing Pong with its brain.
According to the video, the company implanted Pager the macaque with a Neuralink module in both sides of his brain about six weeks before the video was shot. The implants include more than 2,000 electrodes that monitor electrical activity in Pager’s motor cortex — that’s the part of the brain that controls movement.
Collecting this neuron data is only the first step, though. Neuralink provided Pager with a game controlled via a joystick and rewarded his progress with a tasty smoothie delivered via the metal tube you see throughout the video. Neuralink says it “calibrated” the implants by monitoring what Pager did with the joystick and mapped that to the firing pattern of neurons. Lo and behold, when the joystick is taken away, Pager appears to keep on playing Pong and enjoying his smoothie. Neuralink says it only took a few minutes to calibrate the system to use the brain pattern decoder output to control the game in real-time.
Usually, a video like this would be accompanied by a study — even if it wasn’t peer-reviewed in advance, such a document would include data that other scientists could evaluate. We don’t have that, so we’ll have to take Neuralink’s word that everything is on the level. Elon Musk tweeted shortly after the video’s release that the company’s first product would allow paralyzed people to use a smartphone more efficiently than they can with their fingers. He even speculates that future versions will be able to communicate with Neuralinks in “body motor/sensory neuron clusters,” allowing paraplegics to walk again. That’s a lofty claim indeed.
First @Neuralink product will enable someone with paralysis to use a smartphone with their mind faster than someone using thumbs
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 9, 2021
This video is impressive, but most of this has been done before. Scientists have been able to connect neural activity to the machine world in laboratory settings with varying degrees of success. Just several years ago, a team from Caltech used a brain-computer interface to help Erik Sorto drink a beer with a robot hand. However, that project included a lot of external hardware to collect Sorto’s brain activity. Meanwhile, Pager doesn’t have any visible wires or electrodes snaking over to the computer. Instead, it pairs wirelessly with a smartphone. If these implants are entirely internal, that alone could be a major advance in brain-computer interfaces.
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