Musk: First human brain chip trial

Elon Musk’s Neuralink Makes Breakthrough in Brain-Machine Interface Technology

Author | Zheng Songyi

On January 30, Elon Musk shared on the X platform the news that his brain-machine interface company, Neuralink, had successfully implanted a chip into a human brain for the first time, and the patient is recovering well. The initial results show promising neuron spike detection performance.

A doctoral student from the Neural Engineering Laboratory at the School of Medicine, Tsinghua University, explained to Sohu Technology, “Invasive brain-machine technology is not particularly rare. There are at least 20 cases of invasive brain-machine interfaces worldwide. Elon Musk’s mention of ‘promising neuron spike detection’ can be understood as the research institution using equipment to collect neural signals from human subjects, laying the foundation for future invasive brain-machine interface experiments. However, in fact, this step is a rather basic operation and is the first step in brain-machine interface research.”

Neuralink, founded by Elon Musk in 2016, focuses on developing Brain-Machine Interface (BMI) technology. The “Precise Robotically Implanted Brain-Computer Interface (PRIME)” research by Neuralink aims to create a fully implanted wireless brain-machine interface, allowing paralyzed patients to operate devices with their thoughts. Last year’s financing situation revealed that Neuralink’s valuation has reached as high as $5 billion (approximately 35.9 billion RMB).

It is reported that the PRIME research will concurrently study three aspects: the N1 implant, Neuralink’s brain-machine device, the R1 robot, a surgical robot for actual implantation, and the N1 user application, a software that connects to N1 and converts brain signals into computer actions. Neuralink stated that they plan to simultaneously test the safety and effectiveness of the three parts of the system.

Neuralink first appeared in the public eye in 2017; in 2019, Musk unveiled Neuralink and demonstrated the company’s prototype implant, the N1 sensor, using a monkey for the first time; in 2020, after improving the device, Neuralink conducted brain-machine interface experiments on live pigs, demonstrating limb tracking functionality; in 2021, a sensation was caused when Neuralink demonstrated a monkey playing ping-pong solely with its thoughts.

In September 2023, Neuralink announced that the company had obtained approval from an independent review committee and hospitals to conduct the first human trials, implanting devices into the brains of paralyzed patients. They are currently recruiting participants for this human trial, which will span six years. Participants will first take part in an 18-month study, and then will spend at least two hours per week on brain-machine interface research.

Neuralink explains that the trial will involve using a robot surgeon to implant “ultrafine and flexible wires” into the brain. These implants will record brain signals and wirelessly transmit them to an application that can decode motor intentions.

Musk has previously stated that Neuralink’s short-term goal is to help paralyzed individuals type by just thinking, and in the future, it will be possible to help them walk and enable blind individuals to see, ultimately achieving “symbiosis between humans and machines.”

According to reports, Neuralink plans to perform 11 human surgeries next year, 27 in 2025, and 79 in 2026. Subsequently, the number of surgeries will skyrocket from 499 in 2027 to 22,204 in 2030. The company expects to earn up to $100 million in annual revenue within five years.

Li Xiaojian, a senior engineer at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Shenzhen Institute of Advanced Technology and founder of MicroPort Medical, told Sohu Technology, “Neuralink’s latest research has positive value for the development of invasive brain-machine interface technology. Previous experiments using cell cultivation and mice cannot strictly be considered within the scope of brain-machine interfaces. Brain-machine interfaces not only involve signal collection, but more importantly, interaction, which requires the subjects’ brains to be sufficiently intelligent to have genuine communication with computers.”

Gao Xiaorong, a tenured professor at Tsinghua University, also expressed to Sohu Technology in an interview, “Brain-machine interface is a means of enhancing brain capabilities. If a person’s brain capacity is below 100%, we can use brain-machine interfaces to restore it to 100%. Another category is when our (brain capacity) is already at 100%, and we hope to reach 200%, or superhuman abilities. For example, in military situations, people need to stay alert and cannot afford to doze off midway through a task. Similarly, in education, we hope to be in a heightened state during exams. These are the things that brain-machine interfaces can achieve.”

He believes that “the brain-machine interface technology will develop at a rate of 4 times every 10 years. Currently, skilled individuals can use brain-machine interface devices to type on a touchscreen at half the speed of a smartphone. In approximately 10 to 20 years, brain-machine interfaces will replace some of the conventional ways in which people operate.”

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