Would you let Elon Musk put a microchip in your brain? On Sunday, the billionaire’s start-up Neuralink put its first human test subject under the knife. The anonymous patient had a small chip inserted under their skull, intertwining the processor’s tiny filaments in their brains.
Musk hopes that the patient will now be able to send instructions to the implant using only his thoughts.
The chip, or “brain-computer interface,” which Neuralink began developing in 2016, promises to change the lives of people with disabilities that leave them unable to move or communicate.
The tycoon, who also runs electric car company Tesla, rocket company SpaceX and social media platform X, has made many more bold claims about the technology in the past. But the start of human testing – after years of controversial animal testing – means these claims are finally being put to the test.
“We know that Elon Musk is very adept at generating publicity for his company,” said Anne Vanhoestenberghe, professor of active implantable medical devices at King’s College London. “Real success, in my opinion, must be evaluated in the long term.”
Here are nine ways brain-computer interfaces like Neuralink could change the lives of millions of patients – and, if Musk is to be believed, the world as we know it…
Controlling a keyboard and mouse
Little is known about the identity of the first Neuralink patient, but the company’s clinical trial recruited people who had quadriplegia due to spinal cord injury or advanced motor neuron disease.
On Tuesday, Musk said Neuralink’s first product would be appropriately named “Telepathy.” This “allows you to control your phone or computer, and thus virtually any device, just by thinking,” the billionaire said. “Initial users will be those who have lost use of their limbs.”
The idea of connecting the human brain to a machine is not new. In the 1990s, scientists began testing electrode implants in human brains. But the technology is developing rapidly. Computer chips have shrunk to microscopic proportions, while artificial intelligence software has made it possible to better interpret human brain signals.
Helping blind people see
Musk has claimed that another future use of Neuralink could be to give sight to people with low vision. On Tuesday he called the technology ‘BlindSight’. Tesla’s CEO said the implant could beam “direct vision to the brain” by stimulating the visual parts of the cortex, creating a mental picture of the world for the patient.
Other scientists have already achieved similar feats in clinical trials. In 2021, researchers at Miguel Hernández University in Alicante, Spain, revealed that they had attached a chip to the visual cortex of retired teacher Berna Gómez, which was then connected to a video camera wearing glasses. She could distinguish different letters of the alphabet and play a basic game.
Operate a touchscreen
Synchron, an Australian start-up, is working on brain-computer interface technology that can control a modern touchscreen. Unlike Neuralink’s chip, the company has developed a type of stent, similar to those used in cardiovascular procedures, that can interpret brain signals.
Synchron says its technology can “work within the body to enable everyday tasks such as scheduling a medical appointment, texting a friend or buying a gift.”
Unlike Neuralink, the implantation of the stent technology would not require an invasive and complicated surgery.
Helping disabled people to walk
In 2021, Musk predicted that Neuralink would be able to “restore full body functionality in someone with a spinal cord injury.” Although Neuralink has not released any evidence to support this ambition, other scientists have made breakthroughs.
“In recent research trials – not related to Neuralink – scientists have managed to implant interfaces between the brain and the spine that help people with paralysis to walk,” said Prof. Tara Spires-Jones, president of the British Neuroscience Association.
Last year, a Dutch man, Gert-Jan Oksam, who was paralyzed in a cycling accident, received a brain implant that communicated wirelessly with a second implant in his spine, allowing him to walk again.
Still, this kind of brain interface requires “invasive neurosurgery,” Spires-Jones says, meaning widespread adoption could take many years.
Musk has also speculated that brain implants could be used to control seizures. He said in a podcast in 2020: “If you have severe epilepsy, you can just stop the epilepsy… detect it in real time and then deliver a counterpulse.”
During an epileptic episode, the neurons in the brain fire abnormal bursts of signals, causing a seizure. Scientists have been experimenting to see whether brain implants can predict these signals, allowing patients to prevent an attack with drugs, or even counteract them completely using electrical pulses.
Play video games
In one of the first demonstrations of Neuralink’s technology, the company showed a macaque playing the video game Pong using its brain signals. The monkey had learned to play the game with a joystick and was rewarded with fruit juice. Then the joystick was removed and the monkey was able to ‘think’ about playing the game.
People have accomplished similar feats. In 2004, Matthew Nagle, a Massachusetts man left paralyzed after a stabbing, was able to play the same game using a machine linked to his brain, although the device was very bulky and invasive.
Some companies have been working to turn medical equipment, such as electroencephalogram (EEG) scanners, into devices that can be used to play video games hands-free. These headsets typically place electrodes on the scalp to pick up brain signals and do not require expensive, risky surgery.
Cogitat, a start-up based out of Imperial College London, has developed games designed to rehabilitate stroke patients who are controlled only by their thoughts. The ‘games’ encourage users to think about gripping their hands to try to train their bodies to move again.
“Just by imagining yourself moving [your hand]you can begin the process of rewiring your brain after a stroke,” says Dr. Allan Ponniah, CEO of Cogitat.
Improving human memory
One of Musk’s more speculative – and entirely unproven – claims is that Neuralink could be used to improve human memory. In a 2020 video, Musk claimed: “You will be able to save and replay memories.”
He added: “Anything that is encoded in memory, you can upload it. You could actually save your memories as a backup.” Not all experts were impressed. Dr. Adam Rutherford, a genetics lecturer at UCL, called the claims “absolute god-level nonsense”.
The entrepreneur has also speculated that brain implants could allow people to communicate using only their thoughts. Speaking to podcaster Joe Rogan, he claimed that “you don’t have to talk”.
It’s not just Musk who is considering this possibility. An article published by ARIA, the British government’s Advanced Research and Invention Agency, posed the question: “Implanted cortical interfaces have enabled individuals with paralysis to use brain signals to generate words at a speed approaching that of normal speech.
“Could such systems enable entirely new communication modalities in healthy individuals in the future?”
Yet even Musk admitted that such progress could take a long time. When pressed on a timeline, Musk said, “It won’t sneak up on you… five to 10 years.”
Symbiosis with AI
Musk’s most bizarre claim about Neuralink is that connecting the human brain to computers and the internet will help prevent a potential AI apocalypse.
In 2019, the billionaire went so far as to claim that brain interfaces will enable a “merger with AI” so that humans can “achieve a symbiosis with artificial intelligence.”
He claims this will allow humans to increase their cognitive abilities to superhuman levels, similar to futuristic AI.
That’s a bit of a departure from its more palatable goal of helping people with severe disabilities — and not something that’s likely to be approved by regulators for a human trial.