Elon Musk says Neuralink plans human test of brain-computer interface in 2020

Neuralink plans to test its brain-machine interface technology with four of its N1 chips installed under patients’ skin.

Neuralink; Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Neuralink, Elon Musk’s startup trying to directly link brains and computers, has developed a system to power thousands of electrical probes into a brain and hopes to start testing the technology on humans in 2020, the CEO Elon Musk. And it’s already working in animal testing. “A monkey was able to control a computer with its brain,” Musk said at a conference in San Francisco. live broadcast of the presentation on YouTube Tuesday, revealing even more research results than the company’s scientists expected.

NeuralinkThe initial goal is to help people cope with brain and spinal cord injuries or birth defects, Musk said. The technology could help paraplegics who have lost the ability to move or feel due to spinal cord injury – a medical treatment far less shocking than radical science fiction ideas like “consensual telepathy.”

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But the long-term goal is to build a “digital superintelligence layer” to connect humans with artificial intelligence, a technology he sees as a existential threat to humanity.

“Ultimately, we can create complete brain-machine interfaces where we can achieve a sort of symbiosis with AI,” Musk said. A goal along the way will be to have people type 40 words per minute just by thinking.

Neuralink has the potential to radically reshape both computing and humanity – if it and like-minded researchers can persuade regulators and society at large that we should be directly connected to machines. That’s a big if. The challenges are immense when it comes to developing the technology, making it practical and affordable, and convincing people that it is safe and desirable.

The startup is using sewing machine-like technology this year to punch tiny holes in the brain and insert ultra-thin electrodes called wires, avoiding blood vessels as it goes.

Neuralink envisions chips connected to the brain and associated communication wires placed under the skin.  A data transfer system would then be linked to a portable and removable pod behind the ear which communicates wirelessly with external devices such as a telephone or a computer.

Neuralink envisions chips connected to the brain and associated communication wires placed under the skin. A data transfer system would then be linked to a portable and removable pod behind the ear which communicates wirelessly with external devices such as a telephone or a computer.

Neuralink; Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

“We’re hoping to have that, by aspiration, in a human patient by the end of this year, so it’s not far off,” Musk said. He acknowledged, however, that US Food and Drug Administration approval “is quite difficult.”

Brain-machine interface (BMI) technology is actively researched by competitors and other labs. But some worry that Neuralink’s invasive method is risky.

Today, some epilepsy patients have dozens of wires inserted to monitor brain activity, said well he, head of biomedical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University and a researcher who favors non-invasive methods. “In the general population, I couldn’t see how many of these wires inserted into a human’s brain wouldn’t cause risks or potentially alter brain function,” he said.

Non-invasive methods can not only read brain activity, but also stimulate it. It’s easier on the surface, but new breakthroughs hold promise for communications with neurons deeper in the brain, he said.

Even if Neuralink’s approach works, don’t expect to download the ability to speak French anytime soon. The company’s early goals are hugely ambitious, and training the brain to understand Neuralink signals won’t be easy either, said Max Hodak, president and co-founder of Neuralink. “It’s a long process. It’s like learning to type or play the piano,” he said.

In one research paper – authored by “Elon Musk and Neuralink” but not published in a peer-reviewed journal – Neuralink described progress made using its technology with rats. In one case, he inserted electrodes into a rat’s brain and fitted it with a USB-C port so sensor data could be monitored. “This system serves as a cutting-edge research platform and the first prototype toward a fully implantable human IMC,” the paper says.

Thousands of electrodes implanted by robot

With Neuralink’s approach, a robot inserts tiny wires a quarter of the width of a human hair. “The wires are about the same size as a neuron,” Musk said. “If you’re going to shove something into your brain, you want it to be tiny – about on par with things that are already there.”

On this rat, Neuralink’s sensor chip connects to the outside world with a USB-C port. On humans, the plan is to communicate wirelessly so there’s no cable plugged into your skull.


A “wisp” of 1,024 threads attaches to a small chip, up to 10 of which will be embedded under your skin. Each will wirelessly connect to a wearable, detachable and expandable “pod” behind your ear that communicates wirelessly with a phone. “The interface to the chip is wireless, so you don’t have any wires sticking out of your head. It’s basically Bluetooth on your phone,” Musk said.

Installation takes place through 2mm-wide holes, temporarily widened to 8mm, and then glued down, Musk said. Among the company’s challenges are developing electrodes that will last “for many decades”, but “getting the right coatings is a difficult problem in materials science”. The human brain is not a hospitable environment.

Electrodes read and write brain data

Neuralink designs its electrodes not only to “read” from neurons what is happening in the brain, but also to “write” signals to the brain. “You can use this technology in the brain to restore the sense of touch or vision,” said Neuralink scientist Philip Sabes.

Connections to motor control parts of the brain could also help people with brain disorders, Sabes said.

Neuralink's N1 sensor chip, measuring 4x5mm in its current version, can detect spikes in neural activity and send signals back to the brain.

Neuralink’s N1 sensor chip, measuring 4x5mm in its current version, can detect spikes in neural activity and send signals back to the brain.

Neuralink; Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

“A person could imagine running, dancing, or even doing kung fu,” Sabes said, with the Neuralink connection controlling his 3D avatar in a digital realm. “Ultimately, if and when spinal cord nerve or muscle stimulation technology goes far enough, it could be used to restore that individual’s control over their own body.”

Neuralink hopes its procedure will be safe and easy enough for people to choose to have it. “It should be safe enough that it could be an elective procedure,” said neurosurgeon Matthew MacDougall.

So far in testing, “we’ve been able to quickly place thousands of electrodes in the brain without any bleeding,” MacDougall said. That’s because the electrodes are small – much smaller than deep brain stimulation electrodes which currently have an approximately 1 in 100 risk of causing bleeding in the brain, he said.

In an age dominated by tech giants who have succeeded through hardware, software and services, Musk stands out as an entrepreneur who has a knack for other parts of the physical world – things like electricity, rocks and gravity.

Musk is quite busy. He has You’re here, which makes electric cars and trucks, massive electric energy storage batteries and solar roofs. He has SpaceX, which launches satellites — including its own set to provide internet service — and works on rockets to get people into orbit, Mars and across the Earth. Then there is the Boring business, which attempts to create tunnels to decongest ordinary roads.

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Neuralink brings the more complicated and immensely complicated field of biology into Musk’s field of action. Human brains are notorious for being difficult to understand, although computer scientists at companies like Facebook and Google are making rapid progress in mimicking some of the way brains work through technology called neural networks, the most practical and promising basis. for today’s artificial intelligence work. One of the most useful aspects of this research is making computers better understand humans by processing human speech.

But as with his other projects, Musk sees Neuralink as important to civilization.

“Even in a benign AI scenario, we’ll be left behind. Hopefully it’s a benign scenario,” in which super-intelligent AIs outperform but don’t eliminate humans, Musk said. “With a high-bandwidth brain-machine interface, I think we can go on and actually have the ability to merge with AI.”

First published July 16 at 8:41 p.m. PT.
Update at 11:13 p.m. PT: Add details, images and background. Update, July 17: Adds new graphics.