“Mr. Musk doesn’t understand a bit of neuroscience and what is the brain,” Miguel Nicolelis tells Inverse, adding, “he barely knows where it’s located.”
Nicolelis runs the Nicolelis Lab at Duke University. He’s a pioneer in neuroscience, specifically in the field of brain-computer interfaces (BCI), essentially connecting a brain to a machine via some kind of device, such as a brain implant.
Perhaps the most infamous player in the BCI space right now is Neuralink, a neurotechnology company founded by Musk and others. Neuralink recently released a video of a monkey implanted with a Neuralink BCI playing a bootleg version of Pong with its mind. It took the internet by storm.
In a recent interview with Inverse, Nicolelis offers two big critiques of Neuralink. He says it’s...
- Lacking innovation and copying other researchers’ work
- Making promises it can’t keep
For example, Nicolelis says Neuralink’s video game-playing monkey isn’t groundbreaking.
“We had a wireless implant [in monkeys] since 2014,” he says, referring to a 2014 paper published in Nature Methods.
Nicolelis also says Neuralink is taking credit for the work he and other BCI researchers have conducted for decades. “[Musk] sells things that have been invented before and he tries to say that he’s done some amazing thing.”
“I just find it a little offensive.”
Max Hodak — the co-founder of Neuralink who recently left the company — was a former student in Nicolelis’s lab, along with two other unnamed Neuralink employees, he says.
“Neuralink hasn’t done anything that I consider innovative at all,” Nicolelis says. “I just find it a little offensive that these tech guys who behave like gods come out and say, oh we are going to do much better.”
A source with direct knowledge of the situation who wished to remain anonymous confirms to Inverse that Hodak was a researcher in Nicolelis’ lab between 2008 and 2012. The source adds that while Neuralink may not be inventing new neuroscience, they are indeed innovating when it comes to better engineering the science and conveying their technology directly to patients.
But Nicolelis dismisses some of the company’s most-exalted inventions, such as a robot that can implant electrodes, as a “beautiful gizmo” and “just a machine.” He doesn’t believe there is a market for Neuralink’s products, calling it a “boutique market that doesn’t justify a company” with Neuralink’s considerable investments.
Perhaps even worse, he says Neuralink makes consumers promises it can’t keep based on technology that is not currently available.
“The guy is a master of selling things that may never work.”
Although Neuralink aims to use its BCI to improve the condition of people with paralysis, the company has loftier goals of enabling humans “to rewind memories or download them into robots,” according to previous Inverse reporting.
It’s not entirely clear whether Neuralink’s program actually benefits individuals with disabilities, or whether it’s really a covert excuse to explore transhumanism — the merging of robots with humans.
Nicolelis likens the company’s business model to “bad science fiction” that not even “Arthur Clarke could write about.” (Clarke was a popular 20th-century science fiction writer.)
“The guy is a master of selling things that may never work,” Nicolelis says. “They will never make people download their emotions or their deep cognitive functions, and they’ll never make people learn French by uploading French grammar to a brain-machine interface.”
He adds that many aspects of what we consider being human, such as the semantics behind language, cannot be reproduced with a computer algorithm.
“You will never reproduce it,” Nicolelis says, adding “for a science fiction movie, that's fine, but for Elon Musk to come out and say exactly the same thing is bogus — totally bogus.”
Ultimately, the biggest offense that Nicolelis lays at Musk’s feet: not considering the human ramifications of his decisions and focusing on the technology first and foremost.
“What I see is most of these guys, these techie guys, going there and talking about technology like there is no human being behind what is going to be done.”
“What they did was just marketing, just theater.”
Nicolelis believes there is a benefit in having individuals with experience in the medical field create human-centered neurotechnology.
A medical background would help leaders in the field of neurotechnology to consider ethical questions, such as whether using potentially dangerous and highly invasive brain implants — which break the membrane of the human brain, scarring it — are necessary, or whether non-invasive implants may suffice for emerging BCI approaches.
“As a physician, I think about my patients and needs, and the safety of my patient first, before I think about the beauty or the stiffness of a piece of technology,” Nicolelis says, in a not-so-subtle nod to the tech scions that dominate the BCI headlines.
In the end, Neuralink may be selling a stack of false promises that it cannot keep.
“What they did was just marketing, just theater,” Nicolelis says, “Mr. Musk is an expert on it.”