Last Friday, Elon Musk promised a working prototype of one of Neuralink’s Brain-Machine Interface devices. The neurotech start-up had only previously shown one other demonstration back in 2019.
During the hour-long live stream, Musk showed off a pig – named Gertrude the pig – who had a BMI chip implanted in its skull. This chip, he hopes, will allow “human-AI symbiosis”. The chip made it possible to read the pig’s brain without causing any lasting damage.
Gertrude the pig has had a chip in for two months, says Musk, and is “healthy, happy and…kind of loving life.” Another pig, Dorothy, had previously had a chip implanted and had it removed, illustrating, “that you can put in the Neuralink, remove it, and be healthy, happy, and indistinguishable from a normal pig.”
The prototype revealed on Friday is different from the first prototype shown in 2019 which needed a second, visible ear device and was implanted into the school with tiny electrode threads. The device revealed on Friday is much smaller (“about the size of a coin”), does not require the secondary device, and would be implanted into the head by a surgical robot under local anesthesia. It’s also completely wireless and charges using induction, with a 24-hour battery life.
In terms of accessibility, Musk says the cost will be high at first but will eventually be driven down to the price of a new smartphone. “I think we want to get the price down to a few thousand dollars,” Musk said. He also reassured the audience that privacy and security are some of Neuralink’s top priorities.
For now, the goal is to use Neuralink to treat people with debilitating conditions like paralyzed individuals and those with neurological disorders. Musk announced that Neuralink had achieved FDA Breakthrough Device designation to facilitate these goals, although that does not mean it is FDA approved.
These goals aren’t unheard of. Neuroscientists have already tested brain-machine interfaces on humans who were able to control robotic limbs and complete other basic tasks. However, Musk says that his Neuralink device will one day be used to summon a Tesla, save and replay memories (okay, Black Mirror), and play video games. Ultimately, Musk hopes that his device will solve the existential threat of AI eventually taking over humans, which he warns could happen as soon as five years from now.
Musk did not present any scientific data to back the claims he made about the pigs however, and many experts believe his plans to use these chips on humans are ambitious in terms of time scale. Speaking to The Guardian, Graeme Moffat, a University of Toronto neuroscience research fellow, said, “Everyone in the field would be very impressed if they actually showed data from a device implanted in a human.”