Elon Musk, CEO of Neuralink, announced on Monday that the company’s brain-computer interface technology has been successfully implanted into its first human patient. This marks a major milestone for the startup in its quest to develop a comprehensive brain-machine interface that enables people to control computers and mobile devices using just their thoughts.
Background on Neuralink and Brain-Computer Interfaces
Founded in 2016, Neuralink is developing an invasive brain-machine interface consisting of thousands of electrodes implanted into the brain that can transmit thoughts wirelessly via Bluetooth to computers or mobile devices. The technology aims to initially help paralyzed patients operate devices and communicate using just their brain activity, with the eventual goal of merging human intelligence with artificial intelligence.
Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) are ways of converting thoughts into digital commands that can control external devices. The technology holds great promise for restoring communication and mobility in patients suffering from paralysis, neurological diseases, or limb loss. Neuralink is one of several companies developing invasive BCIs that require surgical implantation of tiny electrodes into the brain.
Other types of non-invasive BCIs rely on external sensors that can detect brain signals through the skull. But invasive interfaces can achieve much higher data bandwidths since the sensors are in direct contact with neurons, enabling faster, more naturalistic control.
First Patient Receives Neuralink Implant
On Monday, Elon Musk tweeted that a first human patient has now had Neuralink’s tiny electrodes and wires successfully implanted into their brain. He said the patient was “doing well” and shared a short video showing an implant recipient using an iPhone with just their brain activity.
The patient has not been officially identified, but Musk confirmed the individual is paralyzed. The implant will hopefully allow them to operate devices, access computers, and potentially even walk again purely by thinking about these actions.
In follow up tweets, Musk clarified that the patient still has more neurological recovery ahead before the technology enables telepathic communication. But he views this surgery as an important step toward that goal.
|Type of Interface
|Invasive or Non-Invasive?
|Requires brain surgery to implant sensors
|External sensor reads brain signals through skull
The Neuralink Implant Procedure
The first-in-human procedure was performed at Stanford Medicine in California sometime in late 2023. A neurosurgical team implanted the penny-sized device during a half-day outpatient surgery.
The current incarnation of the Neuralink implant consists of over 1,000 ultrathin, flexible electrode “threads” fanned out across the brain. A small computational unit sits behind the ear, transmitting digitized neural signals wirelessly over Bluetooth to an external device.
Surgeons use a precision robot to delicately insert the tiny threads into cortical and subcortical regions of the brain responsible for movement and high-level cognition. Each thread contains multiple electrodes for detecting neuronal spikes and relaying signals from the motor cortex in real time.
So far, Neuralink has only tested their technology in animals. But the success of a complex neurosurgery in a human patient demonstrates major progress in translating the company’s promising research into clinical reality.
What Happens Next with the Neuralink Patient
In a Q&A session last December previewing Neuralink’s progress, Elon Musk said the first participants would likely have complete spinal cord injuries, rendering them quadriplegic and unable to speak.
The first human trials aim to enable patients to control smartphones or typing interfaces using neural signals relayed by the implanted device. The interface essentially acts as a wireless neural bypass for severed connections between the brain and body.
If the technology proves safe and efficacious, Neuralink will seek FDA approval for wider clinical adoption. More advanced devices could restore limb function, speech, and vision by transmitting signals directly to a paralyzed patient’s own nerves, spinal cord, or organs.
Ultimately, Musk believes Neuralink has the potential to achieve a “symbiosis with artificial intelligence” in healthy individuals. Brain chips could augment cognition, access cloud-based applications through thought, and cure anxiety or addiction.
Concerns and Ethical Considerations
However, Neuralink also raises major ethical questions about exposing healthy patients to the risks of brain surgery for augmenting human intelligence. And the ability to extract or alter thoughts digitally could enable terrifying scenarios if misused.
Critics also contend invasive BCIs cross concerning boundaries between mind and machine that should not be traversed lightly without sufficient safety testing and regulation. Implanting complex electronics inside people’s brains for non-medical purposes poses uncertain long-term risks like glitches, hacking, or undesirable mental side effects.
Additionally, though Neuralink aims to help paralyzed patients first, some bioethicists argue human trials should not be conducted until more extensive animal testing demonstrates that benefits definitively outweigh the dangers. Others question whether society should actively support the replacement of flawed biological organs with artificial devices at all.
Outlook and Impact
Controversies aside, this first successful human implantation represents a watershed moment for the field of BCIs in general and Neuralink specifically. Other groups are independently developing similar technologies, but none have yet reached a live human trial.
If the results continue safely demonstrating patient benefit, many regulatory and ethical obstacles will likely be lowered or removed. This could accelerate research and acceptance of BCIs for various medical applications.
In the future, Neuralink and other brain chips could transform medicine by restoring motor function, sight, hearing, and speech to millions of patients suffering neurological disabilities. Seamlessly integrating computing with cognition also promises to expand the bandwidth of human experience in transformative ways.
However, scientists recommend proceeding with extreme caution given the technology’s frank inability to accommodate the complexity of human brains or consciousness. Powerful knowledge comes hand-in-hand with sobering responsibilities. Society must grapple with difficult questions around consent, accessibility, augmentation, and identity raised by tinkering with our very thoughts.
To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.