Back in early February, Elon Musk announced that his Neuralink project had successfully enabled a monkey to play video games with its mind. Following up on this claim, the company has now released a video of a 9-year-old macaque named Pager using a fully wireless brain-machine interface (BMI) to play the classic game Pong.
As the video’s narrator explains, the Neuralink device was first implanted into Pager’s brain some six weeks before the footage was shot. Initially, the monkey was trained to control a cursor on a screen by manually moving a joystick for a tasty reward, while the implant recorded his brain activity.
Consisting of 1,024 electrodes, the device monitored spikes in electrical impulses generated by neurons within Pager’s motor cortex, which is the part of the brain that is responsible for planning and executing movements. More specifically, the Neuralink was wired up to the hand and arm regions of the animal’s motor cortex, allowing it to create a detailed picture of the activity patterns associated with the movement of the joystick.
Decoding this neural activity using specialized algorithms, the device ultimately learned to predict the direction and speed of Pager’s upcoming or intended hand movements. When the joystick was unplugged, Neuralink continued to track the monkey’s neural activity, wirelessly transmitting this data to a decoding system that produced the corresponding movements on the screen.
Ultimately, Pager was able to play Pong using only his mind, and proved to be remarkably good at the classic game.
The release of this video coincides with some disturbing news reports regarding the treatment of animals at certain product testing facilities, and will undoubtedly lead to discussions about the ethics of conducting experiments like this on monkeys. Previously, Neuralink has placed implants into the brains of rodents and pigs, though Musk insists that the animals are treated as humanely as possible.
In a Clubhouse meeting earlier this year, he explained that Pager “looks totally happy” and is “not uncomfortable”. He went on to claim that “When the [United States Department of Agriculture] person came through and inspected our monkey facilities, she said it was the nicest monkey facilities she’s ever seen in her entire career.”
In a blog post, Neuralink explained that the implant is ultimately intended for use on humans. “Our first goal is to give people with paralysis their digital freedom back: to communicate more easily via text, to follow their curiosity on the web, to express their creativity through photography and art, and, yes, to play video games,” it stated.
“After that, we intend to use the Link to help improve the lives of those with neurological disorders and disabilities in other ways. For example, for people with paralysis the Link could also potentially be used to restore physical mobility.”
“To achieve this, we'd use the Link to read signals in the brain and use them to stimulate nerves and muscles in the body, thereby allowing the person to once again control their own limbs.”