So let’s talk about Neuralink, Elon Musk’s brain-computer interface company. There’s a “show-and-tell” event coming at 6PM PT / 9PM ET today, November 30th, and ordinarily I would be providing you with the service of telling you where to watch it. But frankly, I don’t know, and like most Musk companies, Neuralink does not have a PR department.
Fun! It’ll be on YouTube, probably.
Musk has said he wanted to do tests in people in 2022, but he is also completely lousy at deadlines
One thing to keep in mind during the presentation is that the Food and Drug Administration specifically regulates medical devices — not just brain implants. That means clinical trials to get the agency’s approval. Now, I see that Neuralink has a job posted for a “clinical research coordinator,” and earlier this year, there was also a listing for “clinical trial director,” so it’s possible that Musk may announce human trials. The FDA has some thoughts about how that might work. Initial human trials are usually small.
Musk has said he wanted to do tests in people in 2022, but he is also completely lousy at deadlines and had earlier said he wanted to start human trials by 2020. This kind of thing isn’t unusual. For instance, Musk said in 2011 he’d be ready to put people in space in three years; the first crewed SpaceX mission was in 2020, nine years later. I will spare you a complete litany of blown Tesla deadlines.
Brain-computer interfaces have a long history. An early version of a brain-computer interface was implanted in a man named Johnny Ray in 1998, allowing him to communicate via computer. Sadly, it was slow.
The tech improved enough that a man named Matthew Nagle, whose implant was revealed to the world in 2006, was able to play Pong with his brain alone. (Nagle said it only took him four days to figure out how.) Since then, a few other people have also gotten brain implants, sometimes allowing them to focus their eyes or, if they are lucky, have a beer. Two non-Neuralink techniques for brain-machine interfaces were approved for human trials earlier this year.
In a 2019 paper attributed solely to Musk, the Neuralink system is described as having “small and flexible electrode ‘threads,’” which are implanted by a robot surgeon. Originally, there was a device that sat by the ear, but by 2020, that changed to be coin-shaped and flush with the top of the head. The threads are designed to be more flexible than stiff needles in other devices and may do less damage to the brain — assuming, of course, that they are still part of the design.
Neuralink first announced it was testing its devices in monkeys in 2019. The next year, we were shown pigs as well as some design changes to the device. In 2021, Neuralink released a video it said showed a monkey playing Pong with its brain implant. I suppose it is possible we will see a new animal this year. A dog, perhaps.
Incidentally, the former president of Neuralink has left the company for another startup, one that is meant to augment vision through a retinal implant. (Bloomberg describes this, hilariously, as a way to “manipulate the brain without in-skull implants,” a thing that happens all the time. Arguably, I am manipulating your brain without an in-skull implant right now, using a cutting-edge technology known as language.)
My personal expectations for the event, as you may have gathered, are low. Medical devices are regulated, and with anything as complex as a brain-computer interface, progress tends to be painstaking. Musk has said in the past that he uses Neuralink events to recruit talent for the company — this show-and-tell may be meant to fill some job openings.