Neuralink, Elon Musk's mysterious brain-computer linkup company, is set to host a second major event.
On Musk's Twitter account Thursday, the founder declared that a press update will take place on Friday, August 28. Musk shared the date of the progress update alongside Neuralink's mission statement: "if you can’t beat em, join em." The statement is perhaps a reference to Musk's overall philosophy with Neuralink: if you can't outsmart super-smart artificial intelligence, join with it in a symbiotic relationship.
The event could offer a glimpse into one of Musk's most mysterious companies. The firm, founded in 2016, is set to offer a way for human brains to link up with machines. But as Tesla publicly works toward transitioning the world onto clean energy, and SpaceX works on a giant rocket to take humans to Mars at its Texas facility, Neuralink's work has been comparatively quiet. The main exception is a presentation in July 2019, where the company outlined plans to help patients control a computer.
"Wait until you see the next version vs what was presented last year," Musk declared on Twitter in March 2020. "It’s awesome."
What is Neuralink? – Neuralink was founded in 2016 as a California-based medical research firm. In September of that year, Musk explained how he believed that a brain-computer connection could stop super-smart artificial intelligence from enslaving the human race. He said that a "human-A.I. symbiote" would help "democratize" A.I., and that "we don’t have to worry about some evil dictator A.I. because we are the A.I. collectively."
The reality of Neuralink is somewhat more medical-focused. The company's first event in July 2019 described a chip that could enable a patient to control a smartphone or computer with their mind. A link by the ear connects to the chips and uses a Bluetooth radio to transmit to the phone, meaning a patient can remove the link and upgrade the firmware with ease.
In terms of Musk's more far-flung ambitions, that seems to be a while away. In an April 2017 explainer for the blog WaitButWhy, Musk said that he believed "we are about 8 to 10 years away from this being usable by people with no disability." For the coming decade, helping patients is likely to be the main focus.
What has Neuralink announced so far? – Neuralink's first major press event was held on July 16, 2019, in San Francisco. At the event, the company described a chip called the "N1," which measures four millimeters by four and has 1,024 electrodes. This, the company explained, was a big step up from existing designs for Parkinson's patients that use just 10 electrodes. Each electrode is five microns thick, 95 microns thinner than a human hair, and is designed to rest 60 microns away from a neuron to detect activity.
The N1 chip sits in a hermetic package, measuring eight millimeters in diameter and one fourth of a millimeter tall. Four of these are used in the initial design, three in motor areas and one by the somatic sensory cortex. The team has designed a robot to stitch the probes with a two-millimeter incision, taking less than an hour.
The goal, as outlined at the event, was to start clinical trials before the end of 2020 on patients with quadriplegia due to C1-C4 spinal cord injury. It's unclear whether these plans have changed, particularly with the Covid-19 pandemic.
What has Musk said since the last Neuralink event? – Musk has teased big improvements to the technology. In February 2020, he declared that the impact of this technology is underappreciated:
"The profound impact of high bandwidth, high precision neural interfaces is underappreciated. Neuralink may have this in a human as soon as this year. Just needs to be unequivocally better than Utah Array, which is already in some humans & has severe drawbacks."
The Utah Array referenced uses 256 electrodes and has been used to study conditions like epilepsy. Musk compared it to a "medieval torture device."
Musk also suggested at the time that an update could take place in the summer. He claimed the potential could be "transformational":
"It will ultimately be used to make up for entire lost sections of the brain due to stroke/accident/congenital. Don’t want to get too excited, but the potential is truly transformational for restoring brain & motor functions. There is no other way to do it imo."
In May 2020, he again suggested big improvements. Over Twitter, he declared that Neuralink is "next-level for sure," adding that "reality is getting weird fast."
Has Neuralink published any papers? – Yes. Following the event, Musk and Neuralink published a white paper detailing their advancements. A pre-peer review version was published in August, and the Journal of Medical Internet Research published it in October. The abstract reads:
Brain-machine interfaces hold promise for the restoration of sensory and motor function and the treatment of neurological disorders, but clinical brain-machine interfaces have not yet been widely adopted, in part, because modest channel counts have limited their potential. In this white paper, we describe Neuralink’s first steps toward a scalable high-bandwidth brain-machine interface system. We have built arrays of small and flexible electrode “threads,” with as many as 3072 electrodes per array distributed across 96 threads. We have also built a neurosurgical robot capable of inserting six threads (192 electrodes) per minute. Each thread can be individually inserted into the brain with micron precision for avoidance of surface vasculature and targeting specific brain regions. The electrode array is packaged into a small implantable device that contains custom chips for low-power on-board amplification and digitization: The package for 3072 channels occupies less than 23×18.5×2 mm3. A single USB-C cable provides full-bandwidth data streaming from the device, recording from all channels simultaneously. This system has achieved a spiking yield of up to 70% in chronically implanted electrodes. Neuralink’s approach to brain-machine interface has unprecedented packaging density and scalability in a clinically relevant package.
August's event could expand on these advancements even further, stepping closer to Musk's long-term vision.