Neuralink, the brainchild of tech maverick Elon Musk, has captured the imagination of thousands who express a keen interest in obtaining one of its groundbreaking brain implants. Recent reports by Ashlee Vance, a biographer of Elon Musk, shed light on Neuralink’s ambitious goals and the challenges it faces in bringing its innovative technology to the world.
Ashlee Vance, who visited Neuralink’s facilities multiple times over three years, revealed that the company has yet to implant its device in a human but has set its sights on operating on 11 individuals next year and a staggering 22,000 by the year 2030. Earlier in the year, Neuralink received approval from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to launch human trials for its device, which Musk likened to a “Fitbit in your skull.” The FDA rejected Neuralink’s request for human testing due to safety concerns, including worries about wires moving within the brain or chip overheating.
In September, Neuralink initiated the recruitment process for its first human trial, seeking individuals with paralysis in all four limbs due to spinal cord injury or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. The company envisions creating a symbiotic relationship between humans and machines, allowing people to communicate or play games through their thoughts. However, Neuralink’s initial focus is on assisting those with neurological disorders.
Despite the overwhelming interest from thousands of prospective patients, Vance noted that Neuralink is still in search of its first volunteer willing to undergo a craniectomy. This surgical procedure involves removing a portion of the skull to facilitate the insertion of electrodes and super-thin wires by a robot. This intricate process, which takes a few hours, replaces the removed skull portion with the implanted device. The threads used in the procedure are fragile, about one-fourteenth the width of a human hair.
Using a robot, Vance reported that Neuralink had conducted 155 implantation surgeries on various animal test subjects, including pigs and monkeys. Always driven by a sense of urgency, Elon Musk sought to expedite the robot’s operation and make the surgery fully automated, eliminating the need for human assistance.
Musk expressed concern about competition from other brain-computer startups like Synchron and Onward, which had already initiated human trials. “They are currently kicking our ass,” Musk said after Synchron successfully implanted its device in a US patient in July 2022. Vance also quoted Musk, highlighting the need to accelerate Neuralink’s progress to keep pace with artificial intelligence and the potential emergence of AI systems that may not prioritize human interests.
While Musk’s relentless drive works well in companies like Tesla and SpaceX, where he has set records and met tight deadlines, Neuralink’s Director of Special Projects, Shivon Zilis, expressed caution, emphasizing the importance of ensuring safety and avoiding early setbacks, referring to SpaceX’s initial rocket failures.