The professor of implantable medical devices at King’s College London believes that before Neuralink trains its system with participants, it is important to give them time to recover. True success requires a long-term assessment of the stability of brain-machine interfaces and the benefits to participants.
Elon Musk’s ultimate goal is to achieve a form of symbiosis between humans and artificial intelligence through brain-machine interfaces, such as accelerating communication with computers, externalizing and enhancing memory capacity. This goes far beyond the short-term goals of restoring movement, communication, and vision.
Musk’s completion of the first human brain device implantation surgery raises the question of what it means for humanity. On January 30, Musk announced on social media that his brain-machine interface startup, Neuralink, successfully implanted a chip in a human brain the previous day. The patient is recovering well, and the team is monitoring the electrical signals in the patient’s brain.
However, invasive brain-machine interface technology still faces serious ethical and societal obstacles. Neuralink’s implant replaces a piece of the skull, a more serious procedure than drilling by a dentist. There are also issues of infection and implant loosening observed in Neuralink’s experiments with monkeys.
Professor Jia Jie, Deputy Director of Fudan University-affiliated Huashan Hospital Fujian Hospital (National Regional Medical Center) and Deputy Director of Rehabilitation Medicine at Fudan University-affiliated Huashan Hospital, believes that Neuralink’s human clinical trials pose many challenges and risks, including technological maturity, safety, ethics, and social considerations. Song Enming, a young researcher at Fudan University’s Institute of Optics and Electronics, believes that implanted devices need to ensure safety, stability, and stretchability for rapid development of brain-machine interface technology.
Long-term evaluation is essential. Since 2019, Neuralink has been generating public interest in brain-machine interfaces. The company has received approval to research the safety and functionality of its implanted chips and surgical tools.
After the first chip was implanted in a human brain, Musk stated, “Preliminary results show great promise in detecting neural spike potentials.” Spike potentials are neural activities that send information to the brain and body through electrical and chemical signals. Musk revealed that Neuralink’s first product would be called “Mind’s Eye,” allowing users to control computers or phones “just by thinking.” He mentioned that through these technologies, people could control “almost any device,” with the initial users being those who have lost limb functionality. Musk also stated that Neuralink’s second product, “BlindSight,” aims to help restore vision to blind individuals by stimulating the visual cortex and providing “direct visual transmission to the brain.”
While Musk’s announcement of brain chip implantation signals a significant milestone for Neuralink, the details provided raise questions about the scientific progress of implanting chips in the human brain.
“I hope that Neuralink will give participants time to recover before starting to train the system with them. We know Elon Musk is very good at generating publicity for his companies, so we can expect them to announce the news right at the beginning of testing. However, in my opinion, true success should be evaluated in the long term,” said Professor Anne Vanhoestenberghe, Professor of Implantable Medical Devices at King’s College London, emphasizing the need for a long-term assessment of the stability of brain-machine interfaces and the benefits to participants.
Jia Jie believes that Neuralink’s human clinical trials face many challenges and risks, including technological maturity, safety, ethics, and societal considerations. Therefore, Neuralink’s human clinical trials need to be conducted under strict supervision and evaluation to ensure scientific validity, reasonability, and sustainability.
CNET, a U.S. technology news website, believes that convincing people to implant non-medical products internally is more challenging, and this technology faces serious ethical and societal obstacles. The “Mind’s Eye” device sounds cool, but the fact remains that Neuralink’s implant replaces a piece of the skull, a more serious procedure than drilling by a dentist. The “Mind’s Eye” device is about the size of a coin but thicker, and it is inserted into a hole drilled in the patient’s skull. On the other hand, Neuralink’s experiments with monkeys also face criticism due to infection and implant loosening issues, raising concerns from animal rights activists.
According to CNN, in 2022, Neuralink attempted to have a monkey play video games, but the monkey died, leading to an investigation into Neuralink. In December 2022, an employee told Reuters that the company was eager to go public, leading to accidental deaths of animals and a federal investigation.
Anticipating Symbiosis between Humans and AI
When Musk first announced Neuralink, he introduced the idea of sending messages directly to another person’s brain. In 2017, he referred to it as “mutual consent telepathy.” Neuralink hoped to start human testing in 2020 but only received FDA approval for human clinical trials in May of the following year. A few months later, the startup began recruiting patients paralyzed from limbs due to spinal cord injuries or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
In September of the same year, Neuralink stated in a blog post about recruiting trial participants that the experiment was part of the “precision robot implantation of brain-machine interfaces” research, aiming to study the safety of its implants and surgical robots and test the functionality of its devices. The study was expected to take about six years to complete. Patients in the trial would undergo surgery to implant the chip in the brain, controlling the intention of movement. The chip installed by a robot would record brain signals and send them to an application, initially aiming to allow people to control a computer cursor or keyboard “solely with their thoughts.”
In addition to Neuralink, the brain-machine interface company Synchron is also conducting similar research. It was the first company to receive FDA approval for human testing in 2021. Since then, the company has been recruiting patients and conducting implantation trials. In December 2021, a 62-year-old ALS patient in Australia, Philip O’Keefe, posted a short message on social media using “thoughts”: “Hello, World.” The device implanted in O’Keefe’s brain was Synchron’s device, which reads brainwaves wirelessly and converts them into text. BlackRock Neurotech, a subsidiary of BlackRock Neurotech, has been testing implants on humans for many years. Synchron Medical announced test results for a communication implant in 2023. Precision Neuroscience is researching smaller invasive implants.
Synchron, another brain-machine interface company, is also involved in similar research.
The academic community continually publishes related papers. In August of the previous year, a paper published in the journal Nature reported a new brain-machine interface device. Developed by a team at Stanford University in the United States, the brain-machine interface device collects neural activity of individual cells by inserting an array of fine electrodes into the brain. It trains an artificial neural network to decode what a patient wants to say. With the help of this device, an ALS patient could communicate at a speed of 62 words per minute, 3.4 times faster than previous similar devices, approaching the natural pace of around 160 words per minute in conversations.
Musk’s ultimate goal is to achieve a form of symbiosis between humans and artificial intelligence through a complete brain-machine interface, enhancing human capabilities. This goes far beyond the short-term goals of restoring movement, communication, and vision. In the long run, he hopes that brain-machine interface technology can be used to
accelerate communication with computers and other interface-equipped individuals, externalize and enhance memory capacity, and see or hear details beyond human sensitivity and spectrum. Ultimately, Musk and others believe that in an era of increasingly powerful artificial intelligence, humans need these implants to stay relevant. However, critics argue that using this technology to enhance the functionality of healthy individuals raises many ethical questions not addressed in therapeutic applications, as well as speculative concerns about mental privacy, brain data, and hacking attacks.
Challenges of Safety, Stability, and Stretchability
In the present, brain-machine interfaces still need to address more practical challenges. Moving from experiments to broader medical applications will take a long time, not to mention Musk’s dream of merging digital thinking with artificial intelligence.
“The idea of brain-neural system interfaces has great potential to help patients with neurological disorders in the future.” However, Tara Spires-Jones, Chair of the British Neuroscience Association, stated that most brain-machine interfaces are invasive and require neurosurgery. They are still in the experimental stage and may take many years to become widespread.
Brain-machine interfaces are mainly categorized as invasive and non-invasive. Invasive interfaces involve neurosurgical methods to implant collecting electrodes into the brain cortex, outside or under the hard meninges. Non-invasive brain-machine interfaces measure brain electrical activity using wearable devices attached to the scalp, and they are developing towards being small, portable, and wearable.
Song Enming, a young researcher at Fudan University’s Institute of Optics and Electronics, believes that invasive brain-machine interfaces are the future trend. “The skull of the human brain is, in fact, a very good shielding box that blocks many useful signals. If we only use a wearable helmet, the signal quality, that is, the signal-to-noise ratio, will be relatively low. External amplifiers are needed to further improve the signal, limiting the application of brain-machine interfaces.” Implants can directly obtain the most primitive and clear brain signals.
However, Song Enming points out that the major challenges for brain-machine interfaces lie in safety, stability, and stretchability. The brain is a core organ of the human body, and leakage currents can cause significant harm, especially inside the brain. In addition to this, the pursuit of stable and long-term signal collection and the ability to stretch without slipping in sync with organ movements are also requirements for brain-machine interface devices. Only by ensuring safety, stability, and stretchability can brain-machine interface technology develop rapidly in the future.
While Jia Jie acknowledges the enormous potential and value of brain-machine interfaces in the field of rehabilitation, he believes that further research and understanding of the neural mechanisms and workings of the brain are needed to better decipher and utilize neural signals. Developing more reliable, stable, and efficient brain-machine interface technology and devices to meet clinical needs is crucial.