Elon Musk unveils the V2 of the Neuralink brain-machine interface surgery robot
Musk took the stage at Neuralink headquarters on Friday afternoon to reveal a working prototype “V2” of the automated surgical system the company debuted last year. This machine “To sew“Up to 1,024 electrodes an incredible 5 microns wide in a person’s brain. So far, the system only taps into the cortical surface of the brain, but the company eventually hopes to insert them deeper into the gray matter to monitor deeper brain functions (namely the hypothalamus). These electrodes will connect to Neuralink’s “Link 0.9” chip, a 23mm x 8mm sealed unit that plugs into a small hole drilled in the patient’s skull and collects signals picked up by the electrodes. The Link will measure the patient’s temperature, pressure, and movement, potentially providing early warnings of impending heart attacks or strokes, Musk said.
The Link will fit perfectly into the skull and transmit data wirelessly at megabit speeds of up to 10 meters. It would also offer inductive charging and full-day battery life, allowing users to charge it while they sleep. The little behind-the-ear pod that the company showed off last summer has since been retired in favor of the all-in-one design we see today. The whole installation process would take just under an hour. “It’s like a Fitbit in your skull,” Musk noted during the event.
During the live demonstration, Musk introduced the crowd to a trio of pigs: Joyce, Gertrude and Dorothy. Joyce did not have the implantation surgery and appears to be a perfectly happy, healthy pig. Dorothy underwent the surgery, but subsequently had the implant removed to illustrate that the Link device is not a permanent fixture, but rather can be installed and removed at will if the patient wishes to upgrade the hardware. Finally, Gertrude has been operated and still has the bond installed in her head. Her Link monitors the signals generated by her muzzle, so whenever Gertrude smells something good, the Link picks up and records those signals.
To date, no human trials have been completed, although the Neuralink team has successfully implanted up to 1,500 electrodes in mice. The chip has also been tested on primates. “A monkey was able to control a computer with its brain,” Musk said Bloomberg in July. Human trials could start as early as this year.
Of course, there is no guarantee that this system will work in humans the same way it did with mouse and primate models. If this is successful, Neuralink hopes to first take advantage of technology to help amputees and help people regain their lost sight or hearing – even treat degenerative diseases. Ultimately, the company hopes to “improve” human consciousness, allowing us to communicate with machines at the speed of thought. Musk even postulated that we might one day use these devices to save and replay memories, or even upload our consciousnesses to robotic bodies, Modified carbon-style. It remains to be seen how this would work in practice. It is not yet clear how much the system would actually cost, although Musk believes it will eventually sell for about the same amount as a LASIK vision correction procedure.
This is far from the first time that we have tried to communicate directly with machines. Search in brain-machine interfaces has been around since the 1920s. We have developed BMIs that help paraplegics walk, help amputees move their prosthetic limbs or regain their sense of touch, or help stroke patients recover and closed syndrome communicate.
Musk’s moment in the neurological spotlight can be short-lived, however. A number of research organizations and universities are already developing their own systems. Heck, even DARPA looks at technology. That said, Musk confirmed that the United States Food and Drug Administration approved testing for “breakthrough devices” in July.