Elon Musk’s Neuralink plans 2020 human test of brain-computer interface

Researchers associated with Elon Musk's Neuralink startup have proposed a sewing machine-like system to implant flexible electrodes to establish a communication link between brains and computers.

Researchers associated with Elon Musk’s Neuralink startup have proposed a sewing machine-like system to implant flexible electrodes to establish a communication link between brains and computers.

Timothy L Hanson, Camilo A Diaz-Botia, Viktor Kharazia, Michel M Maharbiz, Philip N Sabes

Neuralink, Elon Musk’s startup that’s trying to directly link brains and computers, has developed a system that’s fed 1,500 electrical probes into a rat’s brain and hopes to start testing the technology on humans in the first half of 2020, The New York Times reported Tuesday.

Neuralink plans to detail its progress further at a live event in San Francisco. It’s live-streaming the presentation on YouTube.

The startup uses sewing machine-like technology revealed earlier this year to drill small holes into brains and thread electrodes inside, steering clear of blood vessels as they go. Neuralink hopes to develop a new system with lasers, though. “One of the big bottlenecks is that a mechanical drill couples vibration through the skull, which is unpleasant, whereas a laser drill, you wouldn’t feel,” Neuralink President and co-founder Max Hodak told the newspaper. 

The company, Musk’s fourth startup, has an ambitious goal of developing a brain-computer interface to help humans cope with what Musk sees an existential threat to humanity: the arrival of artificial intelligence. “The purpose of Neuralink is to create a high-bandwidth interface to the brain such that we can be symbiotic with AI,” Musk said in a 2018 interview with Joe Rogan.

The startup has the potential to dramatically reshape both computing and humanity — if it and like-minded researchers can convince regulators and society at large that we should be directly wired to machines. That’s a big if. The challenges are immense when it comes to developing the technology, making it practical and affordable, and convincing people it’s safe and desirable.

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In an era dominated by tech giants that have succeeded through computing hardware, software and services, Musk stands out as an entrepreneur who’s got a knack for other parts of the physical world — things like electricity, rocks and gravity. 

Musk is pretty busy. He’s got Tesla, which makes electric cars and trucks, massive electric power storage batteries and solar roofs. He’s got SpaceX, which is launching satellites — including its own set for providing internet service — and is working on rockets to get people to orbit, Mars and the other side of Earth. Then there’s the Boring Company, which is trying to create tunnels to relieve automobile congestion on ordinary roads.

Neuralink brings the squishier, immensely complicated realm of biology into Musk’s purview. Human brains are famously hard to understand, though computer scientists at companies like Facebook and Google are progressing rapidly at emulating some of how they work through technology called neural networks, the most practical and promising foundation for today’s artificial intelligence work. One of the most useful aspects of that research is getting computers to understand humans better by processing human speech.

This story is developing…