Elon Musk has announced his brain microchip Neuralink is ready for use in humans and will soon be seeking approval from US regulators.
Neuralink has been described as the gateway to the future for interfacing with technology, with proponents claiming the microchip could eventually fix a number of afflictions like hearing and vision loss, while also allowing people to scroll online with their eyes closed.
Musk revealed he plans to install a chip in his own brain. “You could have a Neuralink device implanted right now and you wouldn’t even know. I mean, hypothetically … In fact, in one of these demos, I will,” he said. He later confirmed on Twitter he was considering implanting a chip in his brain at some pont.
Musk has long been a supporter of the “if you can’t beat them, join them” philosophy when it comes to artificial intelligence, believing human beings have the potential to successfully and safely interface with machines if the technology is developed and legislated responsibly.
“We want to be extremely careful and certain that it will work well before putting a device into a human but we‘ve submitted I think most of our paperwork to the FDA (US Food and Drug Administration) and we think probably in about six months we should be able to have our first Neuralink in a human,” Musk said
The company producing the polarising device has already put out applications for willing volunteers to become the world’s first “implanted” human beings.
Musk has revealed the first two human applications targeted will be in restoring vision and re-enabling movement of muscles.
However, still being in its infancy, it is still unsure what Neuralink could eventually amount to.
Its capability for changing the human race forever could go far beyond what anyone could have imagined. But Musk has remained firm the development of brain chips will benefit the planet despite their obvious drawbacks — a hole in the head being one.
“Even if someone has never had vision, ever, like they were born blind, we believe we can still restore vision,” he said.
Musk previously described the device as a “coin shaped” implant inserted into the top of people’s skulls. From there, the device will be able to connect to the brain to all manner of digital programs.
He has also loosely commented on the need to “upgrade” devices to the latest edition as the technology develops, meaning those who opt-in will need to regularly undergo additional surgeries to implant new hardware.
“Pretty sure you would not want an iPhone 1 stuck in your head if the iPhone 14 is available,” Musk said.
The scheme has unsurprisingly come under fire from critics, who say the notion of privacy will be completely eviscerated the moment a brain chip produced by a company can interact with your brain.
“No one can see inside your brain,” Australian neurosurgeon Tom Oxley said via The Guardian. “It’s only our mouths and bodies moving that tells people what’s inside our brain … For people who can’t do that, it’s a horrific situation. What we’re doing is trying to help them get what’s inside their skull out. We are totally focused on solving medical problems.”
In February, Neuralink copped backlash over its alleged treatment of apes in preliminary tests of the device.
The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) called out the company for causing “extreme suffering” for its test subjects. A statement put to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), claims monkeys “had their brains mutilated in shoddy experiments and were left to suffer and die”.
The PCRM claims Neuralink’s testing, conducted in partnership with the University of California between 2017 and 2020, caused “extreme psychological distress” for the test animals who were subject to “crude surgeries”. According to the animal rights organisation, as many as a dozen deaths have been caused by the trials.
The group also alleges that other monkeys suffered severe side effects including bloody skin infections and brain haemorrhages after having Neuralink devices implanted in their heads. The group based its allegations on documents obtained through public records requests.
Neuralink responded to the drama shortly after the scandal went public, explaining the complicated process involved in testing animals, revealing early tests were performed on cadavers and animals “deemed by the veterinary staff to be healthy enough for one anaesthetic event but may not have proper quality of life due to a pre-existing condition”.
“Animals at Neuralink are respected and honoured by our team. Without proper context, information from medical records and study data can be misleading,” the statement read.
“It is important to note that these accusations come from people who oppose any use of animals in research.”
The company did not deny killing monkeys but said it is “absolutely committed to working with animals in the most humane and ethical way possible”.
In 2021, University of Pennsylvania Professor of Medical Ethics and Health Policy Anna Wexler warned the public to be wary of Musk’s claims, referencing his tendency to overstate the capabilities of some of his ventures.
“What concerns me in the near term are the potentially false claims,” Ms Wexler said at the time.
“Neuralink’s employees are scientists and engineers working on developing what appears to be a legitimate device for medical purposes. Yet, the company’s co-founder is fond of making grandiose and bombastic claims about the potential for that same technology to cure all diseases and allow humans to merge with AI.”