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Monkey Business

Neuralink: Elon Musk reveals monkey can mind-control video games

Tech entrepreneur Elon Musk claims Neuralink reached a new milestone in its quest to design brain-computer linkups.

Goddard_Photography / Getty Images / Inverse

Neuralink claims to have successfully tested its brain linkup prototype in a monkey. According to the firm's CEO Elon Musk, a monkey with the device implanted in its brain can play video games via the linkup — without touching a controller or screen.

Musk broke the news during a live-stream event on social networking site Clubhouse Sunday. According to Musk, the monkey "looks totally normal and happy" while they play.

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"We've already got a monkey with a wireless implant in their skull, and the tiny wires, who can play video games using his mind," Musk said during the event.

"It does not look like an unhappy monkey. And you can't even see where the neural implant was put in, except that he's got like a slight, like dark, Mohawk. He's not uncomfortable, and he doesn't look weird."

This a big step forward for Musk's otherwise elusive firm. Neuralink was first debuted in April 2017 — the goal of the firm is to use computer-brain interfaces to allow users to remote control computers and machines with the power of thought alone. Such an interface would enable humans to develop a symbiotic relationship with super-smart A.I., Musk reasons. Ultimately, such a device is ostensibly necessary to make sure humans wouldn't get left behind by any such A.I.

On Sunday, Musk claimed Neuralink is "making good progress," but he also stressed any early applications of the linkup would be strictly for people with a serious brain injury.

Such experiments with monkeys are not new for Neuralink, or indeed other, similar brain-computer interfaces. In July 2019, Neuralink held its first public event at which Musk and his team detailed the N1 chip. The chip, Musk claimed, enables more refined access to the brain. Similar implants for people with Parkinson's may use just 10 electrodes, but the N1 would use 1,024.

At the same 2019 event, Musk claimed the team had observed a monkey with the linkup controlling a computer with its brain. Musk also revealed the firm was working with the University of California, Davis, as part of its monkey experiments.

Monkeys are not the only animals Neuralink uses for its tests. Musk mentioned tests with rats at the 2019 event, and in August 2020, Neuralink demonstrated its technology live using a pig galled Gertrude.

Getrude with a readout of her brain.Neuralink

Musk's more recent Sunday appearance was on The Good Time Show — a recap of technology and culture news hosted on social media site Clubhouse. The show is presented by Sriram Krishnan, a former Twitter and Facebook product team leader, and Aarthi Ramamurthy, a director of product at Facebook.

The nearly two hour-long chat covered topics as diverse as colonizing Mars, buying bitcoin, and Robinhood's role in the GameStop stock saga — Robinhood CEO Vlad Tenev even joined the call toward the end.

But back to the monkeys.

"When the U.S.D.A person came through and inspected our facilities, our monkey facilities, she said it was like the nicest monkey facilities she's ever seen in her entire career," Musk said.

"Just F.Y.I., we went the extra mile for the monkeys," he said.

"As long as you didn't make them play Cyberpunk," Krishnan quipped.

"That'd be a hell of a trip for the monkey," Musk said.

He later explained that one experiment focused on getting the monkeys to play Pong with their mind.

Neuralink may have more news soon. During the Sunday event, Musk said the firm would likely release videos of its progress — "maybe in a month or so."

The Inverse analysis — With Neuralink, Musk has brought new attention to an overlooked area of neuroscience.

When Inverse spoke to three neuroscientists after Gertrude's big reveal, reactions were mixed. John Krakauer, professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins University, questioned whether a focus on invasive surgery could overlook non-invasive alternatives. But Kevin Tracey, a neurosurgery professor and president of the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research, argued the area "need[s] more hype right now."

Through Tesla's goal of a clean energy future, Musk drew new attention to electric cars. The same could be said for SpaceX and its goal of a multi-planetary species. Neuralink may make headlines with game-playing monkeys, but its long-term effect could be a boosting of interest in neuroscience research.

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