SAN FRANCISCO - Elon Musk’s Neuralink Corp has performed its first brain implant on a human — a major step toward the billionaire’s goal of one day enabling people to control computers with their minds. And for the first time Musk has given the implant device a name.
Here is all you need to know about Neuralink and the company's first human trial:
What is Neuralink?
Neuralink is a startup founded by Elon Musk in 2017. It is trying to build a brain-computer interface that would help people with traumatic injuries operate phones and personal computers (PCs) using only their thoughts. To do that, it is working on implanting electrodes into peoples' brains.
Sounds scary. Has that been done before?
Yes. Neuralink builds on decades of technology aimed at implanting electrodes in human brains to interpret signals and treat conditions such as paralysis, epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease. One early device is known as the Utah array, which was first demonstrated in a human in 2004. Many competitors have entered the field, including Synchron and Precision Neuroscience.
Is it legal?
The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave Neuralink approval for clinical trials on humans in May last year, following a series of implant trials on various animals. The company was heavily criticised for its surgical work in animals, particularly primates, by groups such as the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which said Neuralink botched many of those surgeries.
What is different about the Neuralink device?
The Neuralink device contains more than 1,000 electrodes, far more than other implants. It targets individual neurons, while many other devices in development target signals from groups of neurons. If it works, this should enable a higher degree of precision.
How does it work exactly?
The implant puts the chip and other electronics inside the user’s skull, with wireless communications sending out brain signal data to a Neuralink app, which decodes them into actions and intents. Charging is also done wirelessly. Neuralink has developed a bespoke surgical robot to perform the implant procedure.
What are Musk and Neuralink hoping to do with brain chips?
Neuralink wants to help paralysed people, to begin with. Eventually, Musk says his device could help people with hearing and vision loss. The billionaire has said he hopes one day the implant could allow for futuristic goals such as helping humans merge with artificial intelligence.
What is the device called?
In a post on his social network Monday, Musk said the device would be called Telepathy.
What will happen during Neuralink’s first human brain trial?
This trial is intended to help the company nail down the right design for its device. Last year, Neuralink said it would perform 11 surgeries this year, although its predictions have been overly optimistic in the past.
How long will this study take?
Typically, this type of study enrols five to 10 patients and lasts up to a year. The next step is a feasibility study, and then a pivotal study, which is roughly analogous to a Phase III study for a drug. If all goes well, it will likely take between five years and a decade before commercialisation.