Elon Musk finally unveiled his mysterious brain computer interface ‘Neuralink’ to the world on Friday, but the demo failed to deliver on bold claims.
In July of 2019, serial entrepreneur and inventor Elon Musk stepped on stage in San Francisco and unveiled his blueprint for Neuralink, an ambitious brain computer implant that would allow users to control devices hands free through thought processes alone… or as the man himself put it: ‘read our minds’.
While the claims being made were a little freaky, to put it mildly, the technology’s potential was incredibly exciting. With $100 million invested by Musk alone, and the recruitment of veteran neurosurgeon Dr. Mathew McDougall, the signs were unerringly positive for both the entertainment and medical arms of the company.
The Tesla and SpaceX CEO boldly declared that the Neuralink chip may one day eradicate debilitating illnesses and mental disorders through fixing physical imbalances in the brain, and as you can imagine, neurologists worldwide were equally mystified and intrigued by Musk’s confidence. Over-egging the pudding in typical fashion, the 49-year-old even announced that human trials would take place before the end of 2020.
“A Fitbit in your skull.”
Elon Musk launches #Neuralink .. an implantable device for your brain to help fight memory loss, blindness, paralysis, depression, insomnia, seizures, addiction, brain damage.
He says it’s the size of a large coin. pic.twitter.com/5z7LYHZgDP
— scott budman (@scottbudman) August 28, 2020
After a year of waiting, and several hyperbolic Tweets from Musk – with the last hyping the Neuralink demo as ‘the matrix in the matrix’ – tech aficionados and scientists tuned in by the thousands to see the technology in action on Friday. The more optimistic viewers in attendance were expecting to see human subjects showing off the chip’s telepathic abilities, but instead where left baffled as the curtain raise revealed three little pigs.
Oinking subject 2, the implanted Gertrude, came out on stage to demonstrate how the link picks up on firing neurons in a living brain; indicated in this case by beeps and graph spikes on a projector. The only issue is (and as neuroscientists were quick to point out), Musk’s ‘Fitbit in the skull’ was merely recording neural signals, a process that has been standard procedure in the field of neuroscience for decades.
Andrew Jackson, a professor of neural interfaces at Newcastle University went as far to slam the demo as ‘mediocre neuroscience’. Those wanting to see something truly revolutionary were left wanting.
Thomas Nowotny, a professor of informatics at the University of Sussex revealed that invasive recordings from humans are also pretty common practice. ‘Recordings with extracellular electrodes are done in humans in a clinical context, in particular in the context of epilepsy with either acute electrode placements for on the order of days to identify the focus of seizures before brain surgery or permanent implants to provide deep brain stimulation.’
So, there we have it, thus far Neuralink hasn’t shown us anything that hasn’t been done before. In the hours that followed the demo, many took to Twitter to express their disappointment and mounting negative attention forced Musk to come out and address people’s concerns. He stated: ‘It is unfortunately common for many in academia to overweight the value of ideas and underweight bringing them to fruition, for example, the idea of going to the moon is trivial, but going to the moon is hard’.
It is unfortunately common for many in academia to overweight the value of ideas & underweight bringing them to fruition. For example, the idea of going to the moon is trivial, but going to the moon is hard.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 30, 2020
While people are correct in pointing out the fact that recording braincells and ‘reading thoughts’ are miles apart, Musk will no doubt remain staunch in his view that Neuralink is the future of neuroscience.
Having received a breakthrough clearance from the FDA in July, the start-up is now awaiting the go ahead to perform its first human implantation, pending safety testing. Maybe that presentation will be one worth tuning in for.