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Neuralink’s Brain Chip Plans: Help the Blind See and the Paralyzed Walk

Neuralink, the Elon Musk startup that hopes to connect our brains directly to computers, showed progress Wednesday in two medical areas: helping blind people see and helping people with spinal cord injuries walk.

The company, one of five that Musk heads, is working on technology to drop thousands of electrodes thinner than a hair into the outer surface of human brains. Each electrode is a tiny wire connected to a battery-powered, externally charged, quarter-sized chip pack embedded in a space that once held a head circle. The chip, called N1[ads1], communicates wirelessly with the outside world.

The technology is still far from its first medical use, much less Musk’s ultimate vision of using Neuralink to hang out with super-intelligent AIs. But it is making significant progress, including applying to the Food and Drug Administration to begin human trials that it hopes to begin within 6 months, the company said at a “show and tell” event lasts more than two hours.

“Our goal will be to turn on the light for someone who has spent decades in the dark,” said Neuralink researcher Dan Adams, who is working on the effort to repackage camera data into a brain-compatible format and send it directly to the visual cortex. .

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Musk has some faith when it comes to revolutionary technology. His electric vehicle company Tesla is profoundly changing cars and his SpaceX outfit is transforming space access with reusable rockets. However, his reputation as a tech genius has taken a beating with the chaos on Twitter following the $44 billion acquisition. Musk’s Boring Company, which aims to renew car transport with tunnels, has also not lived up to its promises yet.

Neuralink doesn’t look simpler than social networks. Connecting hardware to our own wetware comes with enormous technical, regulatory and ethical challenges. Helping blind people see is one thing, but a digital feed straight into our brains might not help those of us who already spend too much time on our phones.

Neuralink technology to help quadriplegics walk

Previously, Neuralink showed how the electrodes can listen in on brain activity. By capturing the brain signals of a monkey named Pager playing the classic Pong video game, Neuralink computers learned to interpret motor control signals. Later, the brain’s signals alone could control the game.

At Neuralink’s “show and tell” event, designed to recruit new talent, the company showed off a new trick: a monkey named Sake that used its mind to follow prompts and type on a virtual keyboard. Their implants charge wirelessly, with monkeys enticed with a fruit smoothie to sit under a charger embedded in a branch directly overhead.

But Thursday’s biggest development used the same electrodes to send signals back to the neurons that make up the brain and nervous system.

One experiment used electrodes in the spinal cord of a pig to control various leg movements, a technology that could eventually lead to helping people with quadriplegia walk or use their hands. Neuralink’s approach involves not only intercepting the brain’s movement commands and shunting them to the legs, but also hearing the sensory signals from those extremities and sending them back to the brain so the brain knows what’s going on.

A diagram of a Neuralink connection between a person's brain and spinal cord

Neuralink has made progress toward its goal of using its N1 chip to capture signals from the brain and then route them past spinal cord injuries so that paralyzed people can walk again.

Neuralink; Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

“We have a lot of work to do to achieve this full vision, but I hope you can see how the pieces are there to achieve this,” said Joey O’Doherty, a researcher working on Neuralink’s motor control technology.

See pictures and write with your thoughts

Another experiment fed visual data captured with a camera into a monkey’s visual cortex, and showed that the virtual blinks the monkey interpreted as being in different locations. It is technology that Neuralink hopes will lead to a visual prosthesis for the blind.

The first-generation Neuralink technology uses 1,024 electrodes, but Neuralink showed off next-generation models with more than 16,000 electrodes. That much detail would dramatically improve the fidelity of the image a blind person could see, Adams said.

A monkey sipping a fruit smoothie reward tube looks at a computer screen with a virtual keyboard

A monkey named Sake uses his mind to control a cursor to type words with a virtual keyboard.

Neuralink; Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

“If you put a device on both sides of your visual cortex, it will give you 32,000 points of light to make an image in someone who is blind,” Adams said.

Another Neuralink application is to allow paralyzed people to use their implants for mental writing.

“We’re confident that someone who basically has no other interface to the outside world will be able to control their phone better than someone who has working hands,” Musk said.

Neuralink is not alone

Neuralink is not alone in its pursuit of the field, called brain-machine interface (BMI) or brain-computer interface (BCI) technology. Academic researchers have produced a steady stream of research papers, and startups such as BlackRock Neurotech, Synchron and Paradromics are also active. Some, like Nuro, use non-invasive approaches that don’t require surgery.

One thing that sets Neuralink apart from some of these efforts is the goal of mass production.

“Manufacturing is difficult — I would say 100 to 1,000 times more difficult to go from a prototype to a device that is safe, reliable, works in a wide variety of circumstances, is affordable and is done at scale,” Musk said. – It is insanely difficult.

Musk envisions Neuralink making millions of brain chips and said he expects to have one himself. To achieve that goal, the company is trying to automate as much of the technology as possible. The R1 robot threads electrodes into the brain without damaging blood vessels, but a next-generation machine is designed to handle more of the surgery, including cutting through the skull.

Neuralink is also working to locate the brain chips one layer further from the brain, on the outside of a layer called the dura. It requires major changes to the robot’s needles and needle management systems, upgrades the company is currently working on.

“There aren’t that many neurosurgeons — maybe about 10 for a million people,” said Christine Odabashian, who leads Neuralink’s surgical engineering team. “For us to do the most good and have an affordable and accessible procedure, we need to figure out how one neurosurgeon can oversee many procedures at the same time.”

Musk’s sci-fi vision for Neuralink

Another big difference between Neuralink and its rivals is Musk’s sci-fi vision.

The company’s ambitions are big: “A generalized input-output device that can communicate with every aspect of your brain,” Musk said. But the long-term plan is much bigger.

“What do we do with AI, with artificial general intelligence?” asked Musk. “If we have digital superintelligence, much smarter than any human, how do we mitigate that risk at the species level? Even in a benign scenario where the AI ​​is very benevolent, how are we even going to go along for the ride? How do we participate? ?”

In Musk’s mind—conceptually only for now, but perhaps eventually physically as well—the answer is Neuralink.

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