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An illustration shows how electrodes could be implanted in a patient’s brain, with wires running under the scalp to a device surgically implanted behind the ear. (Neuralink Illustration)

Two years after word emerged that tech billionaire Elon Musk was backing a company called Neuralink, the secretive brain-link venture opened up about its progress, including tests of a robotic “sewing machine” that has wired up rat brains with threadlike sensors.

During tonight’s presentation at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, Musk and other company executives said they’d seek approval from the Food and Drug Administration to start wiring up human test subjects as early as next year. And they’re looking for help.

“The main reason for doing this presentation is recruiting,” said Musk, who has reportedly invested more than $100 million in Neuralink and serves as its CEO. The company currently has about 100 employees.

Neuralink aims to develop a brain interface capable of recording deep-brain electrical activity, with the objective of understanding and treating brain disorders as well as preserving and enhancing the human brain.

Musk, who’s the CEO of SpaceX and Tesla as well as the founder of a tunneling venture called the Boring Company, doesn’t think small. Neuralink is no exception.

“This is going to sound pretty weird, but ultimately, we will achieve symbiosis with artificial intelligence,” Musk said. “This is not a mandatory thing. It is a thing you can choose to have if you want. This is something that I think will be really important on a civilization-level scale.”

Matt McDougall, who serves as Neuralink’s head neurosurgeon and is also affiliated with California Pacific Medical Center, had more down-to-earth expectations.

“I believe that Neuralink is going to be able to provide us in the medical community with a platform that can finally enable us to treat diseases. Also, to understand them better,” he said.

Medical researchers have been using deep-brain stimulation for years as a therapy for Parkinson’s disease and other brain conditions. Neuralink’s interface aims to take such therapies to the next level, thanks to a next-generation implantation technique.

Neuralink’s robotic sewing machine takes advantage of computer vision to insert flexible “threads” equipped with arrays of electrodes into the brain, through a laser-drilled hole just a few millimeters wide.

The system has previously been the subject of a pre-print research reports, but Neuralink provided up-to-date details tonight in a white paper. The paper reported that Neuralink’s system could implant as many as 3,072 electrodes per array, distributed across 96 threads. The robot could insert up to six threads a minute, comprising 192 electrodes, and achieved a spiking yield of up to 85.5 percent.

“Neuralink’s approach to BMI [brain-machine interfaces] has unprecedented packaging density and scalability in a clinically relevant package,” the company claimed in its white paper.

In a series of tweets, University of Southern California neurobiologist Andrew Hires said he was impressed:

During tonight’s talk, Musk noted that “a monkey has been able to control the computer with his brain.”

“I didn’t realize we were running that result today, but there it goes,” Neuralink President Max Hodak said.

“The monkey’s going to come out of the bag,” Musk said, half-jokingly.

Musk said the system’s longevity was “definitely not” a solved problem.

“If it does start failing, does it fail in a benign way, or in a bad way?” Musk said. “There’s not enough time yet to actually say whether it is going to live for a long time. It obviously makes sense to have accelerated live testing of the electrode in a non-brain situation.”

The potential for tissue damage will be one of the key concerns when the FDA reviews Neuralink’s application for early clinical testing. Patients who suffer from severe paralysis are likely to be the first human subjects to receive brain implants. Assuming the tests go well, Neuralink could conceivably sell its robotic sewing machines to neuroscientists for use in their labs.

Musk cautioned that it “will take a long time” to achieve the merger of brain and machine. But he said achieving that long-term goal would be the best way to head off the threat of an artificial-intelligence apocalypse — a scenario that’s been the subject of repeated warnings from Musk.

“Even under a benign AI, we will be left behind,” Musk said. “With a high-bandwidth brain-machine interface, we will have the option to go along for the ride.”

Update for 9:25 a.m. PT July 17: Christof Koch, chief scientist and president of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, assessed Neuralink’s achievements and aspirations in a comment emailed to GeekWire:

“By developing and refining this technology, Neuralink is furthering its goal of building brain-machine interfaces that can be safely and quickly used by quadriplegics and other neurologically impaired patients to restore lost function, such as typing on a screen with their thoughts or controlling a wheelchair.  However, Neuralink is even more ambitious and ultimately wants to provide a means for normal consumers to enhance their brain function.”

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