Musk's Neuralink startup aims to connect brains to the web, starting next year

Elon Musk pulled back the curtain on his brain interface-developing Neuralink—saying the startup holds the promise of merging people with artificial intelligence—in a technology showcase aimed more at recruiting new employees to the secretive company.

For the nearer future, Neuralink’s more concrete yet ambitious goal is to develop a system that allows people with paralysis or brain disorders to control smartphone apps or restore motor function.

Through hundreds of flexible, fiberlike neural implants, the company aims to place electrodes in the brain via a sewing machine-esque surgical robot, allowing for data transfer rates much higher than what's currently possible. Additionally, the polymer threads’ pliability would be easier on soft and constantly shifting tissues compared to more rigid interface designs.

So far, the system has been tested on rats and monkeys, but Musk and his team say they hope to begin implanting human volunteers by the end of 2020. 

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Still, as the billionaire CEO of Tesla Motors and SpaceX described during the company’s livestreamed unveiling at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, progress will be slow.

“It’s not going to be that suddenly Neuralink will have this incredible neural lace and start taking over people’s brains,” he said. “It will take a long time, and you’ll see it coming.”

The company’s initial presentation focused more on advancements in the interface hardware, compared to the work to be done in brain anatomy or the translation of signals into effective computer commands. 

“Getting FDA approval for implantable or devices of any kind is quite difficult, and this is going to be a slow process where we will gradually increase the issues that we solve,” Musk added.

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Launched in 2017, the company has not yet begun the regulatory process to pursue human studies or approval, according to President Max Hodak, who previously founded the robotic cloud-based laboratory service provider Transcriptic. Currently, Neuralink is enlisting research help through scientific and academic partnerships, as well as working to attract new staff.

Their ultimate goal is to develop a procedure as common, elective and low-risk as Lasik eye surgery—and that allowing people to mentally connect to the Internet could become a civilization-level imperative, Musk said.

“Even in a benign AI scenario, we will be left behind,” he said. “With a high-bandwidth, brain-machine interface, we can go along for the ride and have the option of merging with AI.”