Elon Musk has said he is confident that his brain chip Neuralink is ready for humans, and can begin human trials once it has approval from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
In a "show and tell" of the company's progress on the brain implant, Musk made a number of bold claims about the device's potential. Talking about the possibilities for the device, Musk said that the overall goal was to create a "whole brain interface" that could interact with "every aspect of your brain".
During the presentation, the vice president and co-founder of Neuralink, DJ Seo, explained that the "N1 implants" are about the size of a quarter, have "over 1,000 channels that are capable of recording and stimulating" and that the devices can be charged wirelessly, as demonstrated by a monkey that had been trained to sit next to a charging station to charge it back up.
The demonstration also included a video demonstrating a monkey apparently using the device to move a cursor on screen.
Musk claimed that, in future, the devices could be used to restore sight to people who are blind, and give people with spinal cord injuries "full-body functionality". However, people in the field told the New York Times they would be skeptical of these claims, given the current state of the field.
As for claims that the device will soon hit human trials, The Verge points out Musk has previously said he wanted to conduct human trials in 2020 and then 2022. Nevertheless, Musk claims that the devices were so small and discrete “I could have a Neuralink device implanted right now and you wouldn’t even know,” adding, presumably as a joke “in one of these demos I will".
People have been skeptical that the chips are ready for humans. The announcement follows accusations earlier this year of animal cruelty by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) over Neuralink's treatment of monkey subjects. The PCRM claims that a number of documents they obtained show the company was involved in "highly invasive, often fatal experiments" on macaque monkeys.
"Hundreds of pages of veterinary and surgical records showed that the monkeys suffered from infections, seizures, and loss of motor function after Neuralink employees removed portions of the animals’ skulls, screwed 'pill boxes' to their heads, and implanted devices into their brains," the organization said.
In a legal complaint of animal abuse, PCRM claimed that Neuralink used “BioGlue”, which had destroyed tissue in the monkey's brains and induced anxiety, vomiting, and self-mutilating behavior in the monkeys. In response, Neuralink said it “did and continue[s] to meet federally mandated standards”, and said that reports of mistreatment were "misleading".
"As part of this work, two animals were euthanized at planned end dates to gather important histological data, and six animals were euthanized at the medical advice of the veterinary staff at UC Davis," the firm wrote in a blog post.
"These reasons included one surgical complication involving the use of the FDA-approved product (BioGlue), one device failure, and four suspected device-associated infections, a risk inherent with any percutaneous medical device. In response we developed new surgical protocols and a fully implanted device design for future surgeries."
The search for human volunteers could soon begin.
"We are now confident that the Neuralink device is ready for humans," Musk added on Twitter after the presentation was complete, "so timing is a function of working through the FDA approval process".