Elon Musk’s Neuralink has been shrouded in secrecy, until this week.
The company has been developing brain-machine interfaces with the aim of implanting them into paralysed humans, allowing them to control phones or computers.
The startup has already implanted chips in rats and is aiming to implant the device in human brains by the end of 2020, “merging [people] with AI.”
According to the whitepaper published by Musk and Nueralink (which is yet to undergo any peer review), it was able to record rat brain activity from its chips with many more channels than exist on current systems used in humans.
While the company is not yet certain whether the chip will work on humans, if it does, Neuralink says it could also be used to help amputees or restore the ability to see, talk and listen.
Brain-machine interfaces are not a new thing. They have been around for over a decade, with 2006 seeing the first paralysed person being able to control a computer cursor with Brown University’s BrainGate.
However, these devices can be invasive and damaging.
Neuralink’s first big advance is flexible threads 4 to 6 μm in width — thinner than a human hair.
“If you stick something in your brain, don’t want it to be giant, you want it to be tiny,” Musk said in a big presentation of Neuralink’s research on Tuesday night.
Another big advance is a “sewing machine-like” robot that automatically embeds them.
Musk affirmed that the presentation wasn’t simply for hype.
“The main reason for doing this presentation is recruiting,” Musk said, encouraging people to apply to work there. The company is looking to fill almost 20 positions including a neuroscientist, animal care specialist, surgical technician, optical engineer and an accountant.
According to Musk, once implanted the chip – which will go behind the ear – would connect wirelessly to devices. “It basically Bluetooths to your phone,” he said. “We’ll have to watch the App Store updates to that one,” he added with an impish grin.
Neuralink has raised $66.27 million in venture funding so far, according to Pitchbook, which values the startup at an estimated $509.3 million.
Musk co-founded the company in 2017 and serves as its CEO, although the exact amount of his involvement is unclear seeing given that he’s also serving as CEO for SpaceX and Tesla.
Neuralink’s cofounder and president Max Hodak has co-founded two companies, MyFit and Transcriptic, and has a biomedical engineering degree.
While the duo spoke of the aforementioned main goal of the device, they also announced another that is more long-term and has an even bigger sci-fi sentiment: to create a “tertiary level” of the brain that would be linked to artificial intelligence. “We can effectively have the option of merging with AI,” said Musk.
“We will gradually increase the issues that we solve until ultimately we can do a full brain machine interface. This is going to sound pretty weird but achieve a sort of symbiosis with artificial intelligence.”
Musk has previously expressed his concerns over the future of humanity amidst the rising prevalence of AI.
“Even in a benign AI scenario, we will be left behind. Hopefully, it is a benign scenario but I think with a high bandwidth brain-machine interface I think we can actually go along for the ride.”
The tech tycoon is well aware that the road to approval for medical devices is long and fettered with regulation. He prepared the crowd by saying that, despite the progress the company has made, many of the advancements are still likely years away.
“It’s not going to be like suddenly Neuralink will have this incredible new interface and take over people’s brains,” he said. “It will take a long time, and you’ll see it coming. Getting FDA approval for implantable devices of any kind is quite difficult and this will be a slow process.”