Last Friday, Elon Musk showed off his brain-computer interface, dubbed Neuralink. Part of the demonstration included several pigs who currently have the small chip implanted in their brains. Musk and the Neuralink team explained how the device works while displaying brainwave readings on a screen that supposedly corresponded to the pigs’ snouts.
Although the team’s progress is impressive, not everyone agrees that Neuralink is a breakthrough. In fact, some neuroscientists are unenthused by the device. In the days after the presentation, the critics made their voices heard across the internet.
Elon Musk and his team believe that Neuralink can be used to treat a host of brain-related health conditions. During last Friday’s presentation, Musk mentioned everything from paralysis to hearing loss and depression to spinal cord injuries.
It’s clear that using Neuralink as a treatment for those conditions is still many years away. However, the team is much closer to developing a working prototype that is safe for human trials.
To try and humanize the chip, which is implanted in place of a round piece of skull, Musk said it is, “kind of like a Fitbit in your skull, with tiny wires.”
The Neuralink chip is connected to the brain with an array of wires that create 1,024 unique sending and receiving channels. As of now, they are being used to detect and analyze brain waves in real-time. The ability to influence brainwaves hasn’t been perfected by the Neuralink team.
Andrew Jackson, a professor of neural interfaces at Newcastle University, is one of Neuralink’s many critics. In a statement to the Science Media Center he said, “In terms of their technology, 1,024 channels is not that impressive these days.”
To be fair, the sort of tech capable of connecting to more than 1,024 channels is only available in hospital-grade machines that are very large. The Neuralink chip is about the size of a large coin.
Jackson realizes that. He says, “The electronics to relay them [the brainwaves] wirelessly is state-of-the art, and the robotic implantation is nice.”
That refers to the surgical robot Neuralink is developing alongside its brain chip. The team is working on a fully autonomous surgical method that would allow it to implant Neuralink chips quickly and safely.
Problems with the Premise
Neuroscientists aren’t just unimpressed by Neuralink’s hardware. They have also voiced concerns about the startup’s main premise.
Jackson said, “The biggest challenge is what you do with all this brain data. The demonstrations were actually quite underwhelming in this regard, and didn’t show anything that hasn’t been done before.”
Meanwhile, John Krakauer, a professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins University, says, “Let me give a more specific concern: The device we saw was placed over a single sensorimotor area. If we want to read thoughts rather than movements (assuming we knew their neural basis) where do we put it? How many will we need? How does one avoid having one’s scalp studded with them?”
That’s a valid point. Neuralink will certainly need to answer those questions and more before it is able to convince consumers to get a chip implanted in their brain.
Still, as far as critics go, no revolutionary idea comes without resistance. There are going to be critics at every turn for Neuralink. If Musk’s company can prove them wrong, it has the potential to change the world. In the meantime, however, it is wise to listen to experts and approach startups like Neuralink with some extra caution.