Elon Musk may need more press coverage like he needs a hole in the head, but both could possibly be on the horizon for the tech entrepreneur, according to the latest update from his Neuralink brain-computer interface company.
Three years after unveiling Neuralink and pledging to begin human trials of its brain implant by the end of 2020—a target that was quietly missed and bypassed in favor of continued animal testing—Musk updated the timeline during a livestreamed presentation Wednesday. In it, he suggested that the company's first human implants could finally occur by mid-2023, placing it about a year behind competitor Synchron.
“We’ve been working hard to be ready for our first human,” Musk said. “Obviously, we want to be extremely careful and certain that it will work well before putting our device in a human, but we’ve submitted, I think, most of our paperwork to the FDA, and we think probably in about six months we should be able to have our first Neuralink in a human.”
And the CEO himself may become an early adopter of the technology. While describing the discreet size of the implant, he said, “I could have a Neuralink device implanted right now, and you wouldn’t even know.” When that hypothetical was met with cheers, he suggested, “Maybe one of these demos—in fact, one of these demos, I will.”
Before the implant is ready for its prime-time debut, however, Neuralink is hoping to bulk up its team. The “primary purpose” of Wednesday’s event was recruitment, Musk said, encouraging anyone with experience “creating advanced devices like watches and phones,” or in machine learning, animal care or clinical and regulatory matters to apply to join the company.
The Neuralink implant is designed to take the place of a removed section of the skull—in both size and thickness—where it connects to the brain with an aim of stimulating mental and physical activity. Referencing his oft-repeated analogy, Musk described the system during Wednesday’s presentation as the equivalent of replacing a bit of the skull with an Apple Watch or Fitbit.
Once it receives the FDA’s go-ahead to begin human trials, Neuralink will focus on two initial applications, Musk said. The first is to restore vision: “Even if someone has never had vision ever—like, they were born blind—we think we can still restore vision, because the visual part of the cortex is still there,” he said.
The second will cater to severely paralyzed patients, enabling them “to operate their phone faster than someone who has working hands,” Musk claimed. Down the line, Neuralink is hoping to go even further, using multiple Neuralink implants in the brain and spinal cord to help quadriplegic patients walk again.
“We’re confident there are no physical limitations to enabling full-body functionality,” he said. “As miraculous as it may sound, we’re confident that it is possible to restore full-body functionality to someone who has a severed spinal cord.”
Those claims should be taken with a hefty grain of salt, not only because of Musk’s history of exaggerating the achievements of his many companies, but also because those technological abilities are still purely hypothetical and have yet to be proven in animal subjects or in the artificial brain that served as the company’s initial test subject.
Beyond its medical uses, Musk suggested that the implant could help bring all humans closer to our collective destiny as half-human, half-robot hybrids, ideally with enough superintelligence to overthrow any potentially malevolent artificial intelligences that may crop up to pose a threat to humanity.
“We are all already cyborgs in a way, in that your phone and your computer are extensions of yourself,” he said, noting that brain-computer interfaces like Neuralink would eliminate the physical limitations to our cyborg potential—currently stanched by the speed at which you can talk on the phone or thumb out a text message.
Throughout the presentation, Musk and his colleagues shared videos of monkeys that have received the Neuralink implant and can use it to “telepathically” move a computer cursor to type out words—albeit nonsensical ones—or play games like Pong, as previously demonstrated.
Seemingly in response to reports earlier this year that Neuralink was mistreating its animal subjects—claims that the company vehemently denied—Musk assured the audience that animal testing began only after the device had been thoroughly tested on an artificial human brain and was approached as a confirmatory, rather than exploratory, move in the implant’s development.
Plus, he added, “I’m pretty sure our monkeys are pretty happy,” pointing out that they’re periodically rewarded with banana smoothies throughout their “telepathic typing” shifts.