The world finally got a close look at the current state of Elon Musk’s Neuralink project, courtesy of a live demo Friday evening. The demo showed a new look for the device, a peek at the robot that would install it in a person’s brain — and a pig with stage fright.
What is the Neuralink? What does it do?
As Musk explained, many neurological problems that people experience — such as memory loss, depression, blindness, and seizures, to name a few — are the result of electrical signals on the brain firing improperly. The Neuralink is an implant that directly interfaces with a person’s brain, reading signals from the brain, and even altering them to fix problems.
It’s essentially a “Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires,” Musk explained.
The original concept for the Neuralink, which we detailed for you in 2017, was a chip positioned behind the ear, with threads extending into the skull. The design has changed significantly, and the device now resembles a small coin.
According to Musk, to install a Neuralink, a tiny piece of your skull is removed and the Neuralink is slotted in, where it will sit flush with the skull (no electronics jutting out). Electrical threads about 1/20th the thickness of hair extend into the brain where they can pick up or manipulate electrical signals.
For many potential Neuralink users, undergoing brain surgery might make them uneasy, but the company is not just building the chip, but also a robot to install it. The robot will ideally handle the most difficult aspects of the surgery, which Neuralink hopes will take under an hour and be done without general anesthesia.
The device has “all-day” battery life, and can be recharged without cords.
Three little pigs demonstrate that it can be removed
Although the device isn’t yet ready for human test subjects, the company has been experimenting on animals, and it brought some in to demonstrate the safety of the implant.
The Neuralink team brought out three pigs: One with a brain untouched by a Neuralink, one that had a Neuralink that was later removed (to demonstrate that you can take one out without negative consequences), and Gertrude, a pig who currently has a Neuralink installed. It took a few minutes to coax Gertrude out from behind the curtain, but once they did, Musk demonstrated the pig was still behaving normally, as well as giving a look at the signals being broadcast from the implant to a screen.
After the demonstration, the Neuralink team answered some questions about the device. They’re currently limiting the project to the cortical surface, but plan to eventually delve into deeper parts of the brain, where the device could improve sight, for example.
The first clinical trial is aimed at patients with spinal cord injuries like paraplegia, but the device could one day have casual applications as well, such as allowing users to play StarCraft via their mind. Musk even said that one day people will be able to save and replay memories, potentially even download them into a new body.
In the past, we’ve wondered if these chips would be vulnerable to hackers who could steal brain data. The team also assured viewers that security is important and brain data will be encrypted properly, so hopefully mind hackers won’t be a thing in the coming years.
As for the price, Musk thinks it will be quite expensive at first, but as time goes on, he hopes it will be down to only a few thousand dollars.
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