GET IT ALL – What is Neuralink, Elon Musk’s controversial brain implant project?

The big event around Neuralink, which was to take place next week, has finally been postponed for a month, further reinforcing the expectation around this already criticized project.

We will have to wait a little longer before knowing more about the famous brain chip promised by Elon Musk. Neuralink, the company in charge of its development, will finally delay the presentation with great fanfare initially promised on October 31 by a month. It will finally take place on November 30, announced on Twitter Elon Musk

• What is Neuralink?

Neuralink is one of multiple companies started by the world’s richest man, Elon Musk. The boss of SpaceX and Tesla quietly launched it in 2016, hoping to manufacture brain implants. In practice, Neuralink must design brain-computer interfaces that would make it possible to control equipment remotely simply by thought.

The applications are numerous. It would be, for example, to restore mobility to paralyzed people by allowing them to interact with their environment or easily manipulate mechanical arms. Implants could also be a solution to neurological disorders, promises Neuralink.

In hollow, the company also hopes to democratize an implant that would allow everyone to interact remotely with their environment, including totally able-bodied people. A futuristic dream obviously carried by the whimsical Elon Musk who announced at the beginning of 2022 that he was preparing the first clinical tests on humans.

• How it works?

Neuralink’s current implant is the size of a coin about a centimeter wide. The object is relatively large compared to the ambitions of the company which wants to make it absolutely invisible. The idea is then to connect the chip to the different parts of the brain by wires 20 times thinner than a human hair. In this way, the sensors register the electrical signals and relay them to the main implant.

The Neuralink Implant
The Neuralink implant © Neuralink

At the same time, Neuralink is developing a robot responsible for implanting the chip and the wires with disconcerting simplicity.

• Does it works?

Neuralink has already released two early advancements. The first implantation took place in 2020 in a pig to demonstrate the operation of the chip, responsible for recording electrical impulses. A year later, Elon Musk proudly announces the successful implantation of a monkey, with a video to boot. We thus see the animal playing the game “Pong”, simply by thought, rewarded with a banana smoothie.

The video had had its small effect but neurologists and specialists had wanted to temper the general enthusiasm. First by recalling that it was not the first time that a chip had been implanted in the brain of a monkey and moreover that the result remained quite close to what certain scientific teams have already achieved in the laboratory.

• Why is this project controversial?

Beyond certain ancillary controversies (notably animal welfare), two subjects come up regularly about Neuralink. The first is the feasibility of this implant. Elon Musk is a specialist in fanciful timelines for most of his projects (he was planning a first man on Mars in 2021).

In an article published in 2020, the MIT Technology Review was also very critical of Neuralink’s ambitions, stressing that none of the promised advances “is within reach”. For the newspaper, Musk has above all the gift of creating enthusiasm in order to attract researchers and engineers.

The other controversy is obviously the ethical aspect of the process. What will happen to the data? What impact will the implant have on the brain? How to update the chip? These questions still remain unanswered.

Thomas Le Roy Journalist BFM Business

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