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Neuralink monkey video merely shows “rudimentary” demo, says BCI pioneer

“It’s a nicely produced movie.”

In a sensational video released Thursday, a monkey implanted with Neuralink brain-computer interface chips played a bootleg version of the video game Pong — using only its mind.

The video is proof of company CEO Elon Musk’s claim, made in February via Clubhouse, that a monkey with the device implanted in its brain could play a video game without touching a controller, joystick, or screen.

Hailed as a technological marvel by some, video of the new demo — as of Friday afternoon, the short clip was #5 on YouTube's trending charts, with 1.6 million views in 19 hours — may just be Act Two of what others have dubbed “neuroscience theatre.”

“The performance is very rudimentary,” Andrew Schwartz, a pioneer in the field of brain-computer interfaces, tells Inverse.

What’s new — In the video, a nine-year-old, male rhesus macaque named Pager wanders into the shot and starts interacting with a computer, using a joystick to play what Neuralink calls “MonkeyPong.” Pager, the narrator explains, has learned that if he plays the computer game, he will get a “tasty banana smoothie” in return. In the first minutes of the video, Pager maneuvers the cursor to hit the lit targets.

As the monkey moves the joystick, the narrator says Neuralink scientists are simultaneously recording the data from “thousands of neurons” in Pager’s brain via the linkup. To be precise, the company claims to record from 2000 neurons at once. With just a few minutes of data, Neuralink’s algorithm can then predict where Pager will move the cursor based on the monkey’s neural activity patterns.

About 1:40 minutes into the video, there’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment: Pager is still playing, but the joystick is no longer plugged in.

See the video for yourself:

On Twitter, Elon Musk summed up the internet’s collective intake of breath:

“A monkey is literally playing a video game telepathically using a brain chip!!”

“A monkey is literally playing a video game telepathically using a brain chip!!

Schwartz, a professor of neurobiology at the University of Pittsburgh, was less impressed.

“That kind of control was demonstrated more than twenty years ago,” Schwartz says.

“That kind of control was demonstrated more than twenty years ago.”

“They should be able to demonstrate much better control than what they showed here with 2000 neurons recording simultaneously,” he says. “Technically, from an engineering point of view, the recording equipment and the transmission of data seems to be very nice and that may be an advance, but in terms of the performance and the actual use of brain control, it is very rudimentary.”

Why it matters — The idea behind this kind of technology is that brain implants could enable people with mobility problems — paralysis, or Parkinson’s disease, for example. At a 2020 event, Musk said: “I think long-term you can restore someone full-body motion.”

But much like the point of SpaceX is to get a city on Mars as much as it is to facilitate NASA, ultimately Musk has greater ambitions for Neuralink and this marks a milestone on the road. In July 2019, Musk admitted his ultimate goals:

“This is going to sound pretty weird, but [we want to] achieve a symbiosis with artificial intelligence,” Musk said. “I think this is going to be something really important at a civilization-scale level. I’ve said a lot about A.I. over the years, but I think even in a benign A.I. scenario we will be left behind.”

Here’s the background — Neuralink debuted to much fanfare in 2017. Since then, the company has made strides to get its chips, called Links, into human brains. Neuralink’s chips have been tested in rats, pigs, and now monkeys.

Indeed, in 2008, Schwartz and his colleagues made a splash with a study showing monkeys with far smaller brain implants could feed themselves fruit using a robot arm with the power of thought alone. The team has since shown brain implants can enable a paralyzed person to move a robotic arm, wrist, and hand — and even feed themselves chocolate — with their brains.

Compared to the technology Schwartz used in this study, Neuralink is much more advanced.

“They are completely implanted, they are apparently recording from many more electrodes than we have been able to record from chronically,” he says. “Technologically, it is nice.”

What’s next — Ultimately, Neuralink is destined for use in humans. Musk has said in the past a trial could take place as early as the end of 2020, but as far as we know, no human trial has yet occurred to test Neuralink in a human brain. So far, other brain-computer interfaces have been tested in certain groups, including people who had a stroke and lost some mobility — Neuralink is not the first of its kind and if Thursday’s video is anything to go by, the company still has a lot of work to do before it will get to human trials.

“It is disappointing.”

“It looks cool, but in terms of what they should be able to do with such a rich signal, it is disappointing,” Schwartz says. “They should be able to achieve at least with what we were able to do with a hundred or two hundred electrodes, they should at least be able to have at least ten degrees of freedom-of-movement.”

Following the pig implant demonstration in 2020, Inverse spoke to three neuroscientists whose research involves interfaces like Neuralink’s technology. One, Ralph Adolphs, told Inverse at the time that while the first uses for Neuralink would be as a therapy, the future is less clear.

“The primary initial application will be for people who are ill and for clinical reasons it is justified to implant such a chip into their brain,” he said. “It would be unethical to do so right now in a healthy person.”

“But who knows what the future holds?”

“Who knows what the future holds?”

Neuroscientists are already considering the implications of Neuralink for more commercial purposes. In a recent study published in Nature, for example, researchers gave a nod to Neuralink when they proposed how their invention — a smart fabric — could be used in conjunction with brain-computer faces like a Link.

Before any of that can happen, however, Neuralink has to mark a few more milestones first.

“They should be able to get their monkey to move in 3D like tomorrow,” Schwartz says.