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The idea of a brain implant startup with Elon Musk kinda sounds like a sci-fi SNL skit. But, while it keeps many of its operations behind closed doors, we know that Musk’s company Neuralink has been developing a computerized brain implant that, at least at first, is designed to help paralyzed people. In a nutshell, the concept is that these brain implant chips will read signals from a patient’s brain and translate that data into “thoughts” that can be communicated on a computer or smartphone.
Last year, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rejected Neuralink's bid for human testing because of safety concerns – like the wires moving in a patient’s brain or the brain chip overheating. Then, in May, Neuralink was approved to start human trials.
The company reportedly plans to operate on 11 people in 2024 and over 22,000 by 2030. The surgery works like this: the patient gets a quarter-sized piece of their skull removed by a surgeon. Then, a robot starts embedding electrodes and really thin wires into their brain. By the time the robot is done, a brain chip device will replace that removed skull section.
In September, patient recruitment for human trials began. Neuralink said that “those who have quadriplegia due to cervical spinal cord injury or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) may qualify.” Thousands of people have reportedly shown interest.
How safe is this whole thing, though? There’s some worry about the speed being stressed with getting Neuralink on the market. Musk purportedly told staff to quicken its efforts “like the world is coming to an end.” He was worried that hybrid human-implant brains may not be able to compete with artificial intelligence (AI). “We need to get there before the AI takes over,” he reportedly said. “We want to get there with a maniacal sense of urgency. Maniacal.”
Some Neuralink employees have come forward saying that animals used in trials suffered and died at higher rates than necessary because the company was rushing through and messing up surgeries. Some of the animals have also experienced ugly complications (brain bleeding and infections due to the implant “breaking off,” with some developing “bloody diarrhea, partial paralysis and cerebral edema”).
“Past animal experiments [at Neuralink] revealed serious safety concerns stemming from the product’s invasiveness and rushed, sloppy actions by company employees,” said the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in May. “As such, the public should continue to be skeptical of the safety and functionality of any device produced by Neuralink.”
Neuralink has admitted it made mistakes during its early experimentation days and says it’s worked to make improvements and provide better living conditions for its test subjects. “I will always find a way to protect the animals in front of me,” says Autumn Sorrells, who manages Neuralink’s nonhuman test subjects and previously oversaw lab-animal welfare at the University of California at San Francisco.
But Sorrells is unapologetic about the company’s urgency if it means a human can be helped by the device sooner. “It’s unethical not to be hyperfocused on this,” she says.