Elon Musk lets pigs control computers with their brains

Elon Musk has shown his company Neuralink’s brain-computer interface for the first time. During a statement on August 28, Neuralink unveiled prototypes of the device. They showed pigs with the devices implanted in the brain.

The device looks like a coin with extremely thin wires sticking out on one side. It is designed for implantation in the skull, where the wires are inserted a few millimeters into the outside of the brain. The wires can then detect when neurons are stimulated, or release their own electrical signals to activate neurons. Musk showed a video where nerve cells respond to the electrodes.

The ultimate hope is that these small devices will be able to both detect and create the signals from neurons. According to Musk, they could then be useful in treating medical problems caused in the brain or spine. The devices may also enable the integration of computers into the human brain in the distant future.

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happy pigs

The Neuralink team used three pigs to demonstrate the device. The first, named Joyce, had no implant. The other, Gertrude, had an implant that monitored the nerve cells in her snout. While the pig rummaged in some hay, Musk showed live signals from Gertrude’s Neuralink device through a screen. These signals appeared when the snout touched the food or the ground.

Dorothy, the third pig, had been implanted before. It has since been removed. “Dorothy shows that you can put the Neuralink in and take it out, and you will end up with a healthy, happy pig that is indistinguishable from a normal pig,” Musk said. He added that this is important for use in humans as they may want to remove or upgrade their implants.

“The most challenging thing they have achieved is that the animal appears to be happy, walks around and behaves normally, and the data is transmitted wirelessly,” says bioelectronics expert Timir Datta-Chaudhuri of the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in New York. “Other people who do similar things usually show the animal under anesthesia on an operating table, with wires sticking out of the brain.”

Hidden injuries

While this is impressive, Datta-Chaudhuri says it is not enough to show that the devices are secure. Musk states that the implant can be performed with relatively little bleeding in the brain. “One would think that something would definitely bleed when you put a wire in it, but in fact it does not happen on a very small scale,” Musk said.

“They downplayed the risk of brain damage, but this damage is sometimes not easy to detect in humans, let alone pigs,” says Datta-Chaudhuri. “It is not known whether the pig suddenly has speech disorders or whether other pigs no longer interact with the animal because it behaves strangely.”

Read memory

During the announcement, members of the Neuralink team expressed their long-term expectations. These ranged from restoring vision for people with eye injuries and reducing pain, to storing memories and telepathy.

Some of these expectations are more realistic than others, says Datta-Chaudhuri. For example, Musk talked about circumventing back injuries to restore the ability to move in paralyzed individuals, which he says will be the focus of the company’s first clinical trial with humans, which will begin soon. Devices similar to Neuralink have achieved this before, so expect the same from Neuralink.

On the other hand, abilities like memory reading in addition to advanced technology also require a detailed understanding of the brain that we simply do not have yet, Datta-Chaudhuri said.

“I think there is a lot they have not yet discovered and it will be an uphill battle for them,” he says. “But this snowball can roll and get bigger, simply because of the fire benefit and Elon Musk’s connectedness, which brings a social spotlight.”

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