Neuralink Shows Signs of Success and Expands to Austin
Neuralink, Elon Musk’s neurotechnology company, announced plans to expand to Austin, Texas and has been garnering significant media attention lately. Founded in 2016, it is yet another of Musk’s visionary companies generating hype. Neuralink seeks to implant chips in human brains to create brain-chip interfaces with digital devices. The wireless implants, or “neural lace”, would be surgically implanted under the skull and allow individuals to send their neuroelectrical activity to cloud servers or electronic devices.
Successfully developing implantable brain-machine interfaces is no easy feat due to the complexity of the human brain. However, Musk and his team remain optimistic that Neuralink can develop cutting-edge technology capable of eventual implantation into human brains. In addition to being able to control smartphones and the like with the neural chip, Musk hopes the chips could be used to treat chronic conditions like Parkinson’s disease, dementia, and spinal cord injuries. A neural-digital interface could also help physically disabled people with controlling digital devices using just their minds.
Gertrude and Her Neuralink
At a recent Neuralink webcast presentation, a pig named Gertrude was on display that had a brain-monitoring chip surgically implanted. A computer screen seamlessly displayed the brain recordings in real time. As Gertrude moved around the pen and snacked on food, peak and trough lines appeared on a display screen. These lines corresponded to the firing of neurons and other neurological activity. For example, the signal spiked when the pig touched food. Although this is an important first step in the technology’s development, it is essential to note that researchers are still a long way from understanding how to interpret and decode brain signals. During the demo event, Musk steered clear of giving timelines or offering information on when the Neuralink system might be ready for human testing.
Insertion of the Chip
The coin-sized chip could be inserted under an individual’s hair in an unnoticeable fashion. The probe would contain over 3,000 electrodes that would monitor the activity of thousands of neurons. The company has also unveiled a prototype of a surgical ‘sewing machine’ robot. This robot would be designed to precisely carve out a small piece of bone and insert the device with electrodes into an individual’s brain. The robot would avoid blood vessels and perform the surgical procedure within only a couple hours. The industrial design firm Woke Studio in Vancouver, British Columbia, designed the futuristic prototype.
Erosion Inside Brain A Concern
One concern that the technology’s designers will need to address is the issue of erosion over time inside the brain. The electrodes could physically erode over time in the corrosive environment of the brain. Even though the sewing machine robot prototype would have the ability to both easily insert and take out the Neuralink chip without injury, the possibility of having to frequently replace the device is a drawback. Additionally, the brain fights off invaders, by activating protective cells called glia. Thus engineers will need to work around the longevity issue, perhaps by using materials that don’t easily corrode and that can resist possibility of the brain breaking down the electrodes.
The relatively young company has already raised approximately $158 million through two funding rounds. About $100 million of that funding stems from Musk. Neuralink is based in San Francisco and currently employs roughly 100 employees. The company is led by Elon Musk and Max Hodak, a co-founder who serves as President of the neurotechnology company. Hodak was initially skeptical of Neuralink’s technology before being convinced by Elon Musk. Prior to Neuralink, Hodak graduated from Duke University with a biomedical engineering degree and founded a company called Transcriptic. The company focused on creating a robotic cloud laboratory for biology research.
Neuralink Recruiting Efforts
Neuralink has put in extensive effort to recruit top scientists and engineers. The company currently has around 100 employees and is expanding beyond California to Austin, Texas. The Austin expansion follows a recent announcement by Musk to open Tesla’s newest gigafactory in this growing tech hub city. Neuralink is currently seeking to expand its workforce of electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, software developers, neuroengineers, and operations specialists. Musk’s vision is to grow the company to 10,000 employees in the near future.
The idea of creating a miniature brain implant that could control devices outside the brain such as robotic arms or computer cursors is not a novel concept. Since the early 2000s, scientists have been performing lab experiments to test out such ideas. However, Neuralink has the benefit of past research results to build upon in its quest to develop its brain-machine interface technology. When Neuralink begins experimenting on humans, the company hopes to start by testing the technology on paralyzed individuals to see whether the technology could enable them to move a computer cursor using only their minds.
Musk envisions that Neuralink could someday produce affordable, reliable brain implants available to the masses. If Musk’s past successes with SpaceX and Tesla are any indication, Neuralink has the potential to be yet another successful company with a bold mission, but perhaps it will take longer than planned to meet Musk’s ambitious goals.