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Would you let Elon Musk stick a microchip in your brain? On Sunday, the billionaire’s Neuralink start-up put its first human test subject under the knife. The anonymous patient had a tiny chip inserted under their skull, entwining the minute filaments from the processor into their brain.
Musk hopes the patient will now be able to send instructions to the implant using thoughts alone.
The chip, or “brain-computer interface”, which Neuralink began developing in 2016, promises to change the lives of people with disabilities that prevent them from moving or communicating.
The tycoon, who also runs the electric car company Tesla, rocket venture SpaceX and social media platform X, has made many other bold claims about the technology in the past. But the beginning of human trials – after years of controversial animal tests – means those claims are finally being put to the test.
“We know Elon Musk is very adept at generating publicity for his company,” says Anne Vanhoestenberghe, a professor of active implantable medical devices at King’s College London. “True success in my mind should be evaluated in the long-term.”
Here are nine ways brain-computer interfaces such as Neuralink could change the lives of millions of patients – and, if we are to believe Musk, the world as we know it…
Controlling a keyboard and mouse
Little is known about the identity of the first Neuralink patient, but the company’s clinical trial called for those who had quadriplegia due to a spinal injury or advanced motor neurone disease.
On Tuesday, Musk said Neuralink’s first product would be aptly named “Telepathy”. This “enables control of your phone or computer, and through them almost any device, just by thinking,” the billionaire said. “Initial users will be those who have lost use of their limbs.”
The idea of connecting the human brain up to a machine is not new. In the 1990s, scientists began testing electrode implants in human brains. But the technology is moving on rapidly. Computer chips have shrunk to microscopic proportions, while artificial intelligence software has made it possible to better interpret the signals from human brains.
Helping blind people to see
Musk has claimed another future use for Neuralink could be to give sight to those with impaired vision. On Tuesday, he dubbed the technology “BlindSight”. The Tesla chief executive said the implant could beam “direct vision to the brain” by stimulating the visual parts of the cortex, creating a mental image of the world before the patient.
Other scientists have already achieved similar feats in clinical trials. In 2021, researchers at Miguel Hernández University, in Alicante, Spain, revealed they had attached a chip to the visual cortex of retired teacher Berna Gómez, which was then connected to a pair of glasses with a video camera. She was able to discern several letters of the alphabet and play a basic game.
Controlling a touch screen
Synchron, an Australian start-up, is working on brain-computer interface technology that can be used to control a modern touchscreen. In contrast to Neuralink’s chip, the company has developed a type of stent, similar to those used in cardiovascular procedures, that can interpret brain signals.
Synchron says its technology is able to “work inside the body to help enable everyday tasks like scheduling a medical appointment, texting a friend, or purchasing a gift”.
Unlike Neuralink, the stent technology should not require an invasive and complicated operation to implant.
Helping the disabled to walk
In 2021, Musk predicted that Neuralink would be able to “restore full-body functionality to someone who has a spinal cord injury”. While Neuralink has not released any evidence to support this ambition, other scientists have made breakthroughs.
“In recent research trials – not related to Neuralink – scientists have been able to implant brain-spine interfaces which help people with paralysis to walk,” says Prof Tara Spires-Jones, the president of the British Neuroscience Association.
Last year, a Dutch man, Gert-Jan Oksam, who had been paralysed in a cycling accident, was fitted with a brain implant that wirelessly communicated with a second implant in his spine, allowing him to walk again.
Still, this kind of brain-interface requires “ invasive neurosurgery”, says Spires-Jones, meaning widespread adoption could still be many years away.
Musk has also speculated that brain implants could be used to control epileptic seizures. He told a podcast in 2020: “If you’ve got severe epilepsy you could just sort of stop the epilepsy from occurring… detect it in real time and then fire a counter pulse.”
During an epileptic episode, the neurons in the brain fire abnormal bursts of signals, causing a seizure. Scientists have been experimenting with whether brain implants can either predict these signals, allowing patients to prevent oncoming fit with drugs, or even counteract them entirely using electrical pulses.
Playing video games
During one of its early demonstrations of Neuralink’s technology, the company showed off a macaque monkey playing the video game Pong using its brain signals. The monkey had been taught to play the game with a joystick, being rewarded with fruit juice. The joystick was then taken away, and the monkey was able to “think” about playing the game instead.
Humans have achieved similar feats. In 2004, Matthew Nagle, a Massachusetts man who had been left paralysed after a stabbing, was able to play the same game using a machine linked to his brain, although the device was very bulky and invasive.
Some companies have worked on turning medical equipment, such as electroencephalogram (EEG) scanners, into devices that can be used to play video games hands-free. These headsets typically place electrodes on the scalp to pick up brain signals and do not require an expensive, risky operation.
Cogitat, a start-up spun out of Imperial College London, has developed games designed to rehabilitate stroke patients that are controlled by thoughts alone. Its “games” encourage users to think about gripping their hands to help try and train their body to move again.
“Just by imagining moving [your hand], you can begin that process of rewiring your brain after a stroke,” said Dr Allan Ponniah, the chief executive of Cogitat.
Enhancing human memory
Among Musk’s more speculative – and entirely unproven – claims are that Neuralink could be used to enhance human memory. In a video from 2020, Musk claimed: “You will be able to save and replay memories.”
He added: “Everything that’s encoded in memory, you could upload. You could basically store your memories as a backup.” Not all experts were impressed. Dr Adam Rutherford, a genetics lecturer at UCL, called the claims “absolute god-level cockwaffle”.
The entrepreneur has also speculated that brain implants could allow humans to communicate using only their thoughts. Speaking to the podcaster Joe Rogan, he claimed that “you wouldn’t need to talk”.
It is not just Musk contemplating this possibility. A paper published by ARIA, the UK government’s Advanced Research and Invention Agency, posed the question: “Implanted cortical interfaces have enabled individuals with paralysis to use brain signals to generate words at a rate approaching that of regular speech.
“In the future, could such systems enable entirely new modalities of communications in healthy individuals?”
Still, even Musk admitted such an advance could take a long time. When pressed on a timeline, Musk said: “It’s not going to sneak up on you… five to 10 years.”
Symbiosis with AI
The most outlandish of Musk’s claims about Neuralink is that connecting the human brain to computers and the internet will help stave off a potential AI apocalypse.
In 2019, the billionaire went so far as to claim brain interfaces will allow a “merging with AI” so humans can “achieve symbiosis with artificial intelligence”.
He claims this will allow humans to increase their cognitive abilities to superhuman levels, on a par with futuristic AI.
That is some way from his more palatable goal of helping people with severe disabilities – and not one likely to be approved by regulators for a human trial.