The chip is custom-built to receive and process the electrical action potentials—“spikes”—that signal activity in the interconnected neurons that make up the brain. The wires embed into brain tissue and receive those spikes. And the robotic sewing machineplaces those wires with enviable precision, a “neural lace” straight out of science fiction that dodges the delicate blood vessels spreading across the brain’s surface like ivy.
If Neuralink’s technologies work as Musk and his team intend, they’ll be able to pick up signals from across a person’s brain—first from the motor cortex that controls movement but eventually throughout your think-meat—and turn them into machine-readable code that a computer can understand. It might use them to control a computer or a prosthesis, to someday even feed information back to help the blind see, or to create entire virtual Matrixes inside your mind. “All this will occur I think quite slowly,” Musk said from the stage. “It’s not as if Neuralink will suddenly have this incredible neural lace and take over people’s brains. It will take a long time.” But after tests, and FDA approval, and more advances, this tech could be the thing that lets people commune with the ultrasmart artificial intelligences Musk is convinced are on the way. “Even in a benign AI scenario we will be left behind,” he said. “With a high-bandwidth brain-machine interface, we can actually go along for the ride. We can have the option of merging with AI.”
This is all pretty on-brand for Musk. As the guy who runs the electric-car company Tesla and the rocket company SpaceX, Musk has gotten very good at—in trouble, even, for—taking impressive technological achievements and, well, maybe not hyping them, but let’s say skipping all the way to the end of their speculative narrative arcs. It’s not enough to have superslick electric cars; no, they’re also going to drive themselves. That rocket isn’t just going to ferry cargo to a space station; no, it’s going to take people to Mars. How exciting!
Since The Wall Street Journal revealed Neuralink’s existence two years ago, the tech and neuroscience worlds have buzzed about what Musk’s team of brain-machine interface experts was up to. Other companies, including Kernel and Facebook, announced they, too, were working on the technology, which has so far been used only in research and rare clinical settings. Darpa, the US government’s advanced-science division, has been funding brain-computer interface work since the 1970s, and the agency has been part of the government-wide Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (yes, the acronym is also “Brain”) since 2013.
So it’s hard to know exactly how to calibrate Musk’s claims for a device that he plans to eventually stick into healthy people’s brains. “We hope to have this aspirationally in a human patient by the end of next year,” Musk said. The first volunteers, he hopes, will be people with quadriplegia, willing to have four chips implanted, three in the motor cortex of the brain (roughly running from above the ear to the top of the head) and on providing closed-loop feedback to the somatosensory cortex. That’s even though, according to an article distributed at the presentation—and not peer-reviewed—the Neuralink technology is so far only in the heads of 19 rats, and even then with only 87 percent of the electrodes successfully inserted. The FDA is going to want more than that before it approves human use.
And, sure, there’s more. A public records request from WIRED in April 2019 found that Neuralink is licensed to have hundreds of rats and mice in its research facilities. In a seemingly unplanned moment at the Cal Academy, Musk also acknowledged that Neuralink’s research had progressed beyond rodents to non-human primates. It’s only because of a records request filed by Gizmodo that Neuralink’s affiliation with the primate research center at UC Davis is public knowledge. That affiliation has apparently progressed: “A monkey has been able to control a computer with its brain, just FYI,” Musk said during the Q and A after the presentation.
His team seemed as surprised and discombobulated by the announcement as the audience. “I didn’t know we were running that result today, but there it goes,” said Max Hodak, president of the company, on stage next to Musk. (Monkeys have controlled computers via BCIs before, though presumably this would be the first time one used Neuralink.)
(A separate records request from WIRED in August of 2018 reveals that Neuralink re-upped its deal with UC Davis in June of that year, a month after the Gizmodo article. That relationship hasn’t always been entirely cordial; emails obtained by WIRED show that in June of 2018 John Morrison, director of the California National Primate Research Center at UC Davis, complained that Neuralink was trying to poach UC Davis staffers. “I realize that this is routine practice in the private sector, but I am a little surprised since my understanding is that there was an interest in developing scientific collaboration between Neuralink and the CNRPC,” Morrison wrote to a redacted contact apparently at Neuralink. “Hiring away personnel does not build a relationship.”)