Paralyzed, Plays Civ VI via Mind

Article Source: SyncedReview

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A 29-year-old man, who has been paralyzed from the shoulders down for eight years following a diving accident, is re-experiencing the joys of online chess and the expansive strategy game “Civilization VI” thanks to a brain-computer interface (BCI) device.

This remarkable display was part of Neuralink’s latest live broadcast, attracting attention from over five million viewers.

In the nine-minute stream, Neuralink’s first human subject, Noland Arbaugh, introduced himself and demonstrated how he employs the Neuralink device to play online chess and the video game “Civilization.”

Seated in a special chair in front of a laptop, Arbaugh’s hands remain on the armrests while he attempts to navigate a game of chess:

“This isn’t perfect. We’ve encountered some problems, and I don’t want people to think this is the end of the journey. There’s a lot more work to do,” Arbaugh stated while seated next to Neuralink engineer Bliss Chapman. Yet, the brain-computer interface has brought several improvements to his life, such as being able to play video games for hours without depending on his family.

His physical condition previously limited his ability to engage in his favorite game, “Civilization VI,” as he could only play it for a few hours before needing someone to help adjust his position.

“I’ve pretty much given up playing that game,” he added, describing it as a “big game” that requires a lot of time sitting still.

With the brain implant, he can now lie in bed and play video games for several hours. The only limitation he mentions is the need to recharge the device after about eight hours of continuous gameplay, which can be a challenge for a game like “Civilization VI,” known for extensive single sessions.

During the broadcast, Arbaugh described the learning process for using the BCI: “I would try to move, say, my right hand left, right, forward, and back and from then on, it felt quite intuitive to start imagining the cursor moving.”

“If you can see the cursor moving on the screen, that might well be me,” he said.

Although the live broadcast included limited details, Neuralink engineers mentioned that more information would be released in the coming days.

An important step in brain-computer interface research

Founded by Elon Musk in 2016, Neuralink is developing a system known as a brain-computer interface, which decodes the intent of movement from brain signals. The company’s initial goal is to enable paralyzed individuals to control cursors or keyboards with their thoughts alone.

This livestream positioned Neuralink as one of the first companies to reveal evidence of human brain implants. Competitors Blackrock Neurotech and Synchron have been working on similar technologies for years, each with different approaches, and the field has also seen an influx of startups.

One of Neuralink’s co-founders left the company in 2021 to found Precision Neuroscience, which began a human clinical trial last June, competing directly with Neuralink.

Neuralink itself has faced intense scrutiny, partly because its founder, Elon Musk, is also the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX and one of the world’s wealthiest individuals.

The company received the green light from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last year to proceed with preliminary human trials, and it began recruiting paralyzed individuals to test the device in the fall.

To date, however, Neuralink has revealed few details about the progression of this study.

Musk announced in a January X post that the first human subject had received a Neuralink implant and was “recovering well.”

On February 19th, Musk responded in a Spaces audio conversation on X that “progress is good, and the patient seems to have fully recovered without any adverse effects that we’re aware of. The patient can move the mouse on the screen just by thinking.”

The Neuralink device is implanted in the brain using the company’s proprietary surgical robot; once implanted, it is invisible externally. To analyze brain signals and convert them into output commands for controlling external devices, Neuralink has also developed specialized software.

Arbaugh’s stream appeared to allay concerns about device safety: “I think there’s nothing to be afraid of. The surgery was extremely simple, and I was discharged the day after. Cognitive impairments have not been a problem post-operation,” he shared.

Brain-computer interfaces moving forward amid controversy

Some neuroscientists and ethicists have criticized Neuralink’s past experiments for a lack of transparency. In 2021, Neuralink released a video showing a monkey with an implanted device mentally playing a video game, which created a substantial sensation. The animal protection organization PCRM sued Neuralink, accusing it of “abuse” against monkeys used in experiments.

Neuralink responded saying: “Several monkeys were already unhealthy and were going to be euthanized before participating in the experiments. All new medical devices must be tested on animals before they can be tested on humans, a rule that Neuralink cannot evade. But we are absolutely committed to working with animals in the most humane and ethical way possible.”

For human subjects, ethical challenges are even greater. Neuralink has not disclosed the number of subjects or the locations and evaluations of the preliminary human trials.

Notably, Neuralink has not yet registered on (a government repository containing information on medical studies involving human participants).

Experts believe that even if the BCI devices prove safe for human use, Neuralink may need over a decade to secure commercial usage approval.

Apart from Neuralink, other companies are also vying to commercialize brain-computer interfaces. For instance, Synchron is developing a stent-like device designed to be inserted into the jugular vein and moved up to lie against the brain. Synchron’s vascular approach is considered safer than Neuralink’s, which requires cutting into the skull to implant the device.

Synchron implanted its BCI device, the Stentrode, in a patient with ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis). After receiving the Stentrode, the participant was able to communicate using a computer and accomplish daily tasks such as online shopping and banking through thought.

A clinical participant of Synchron’s communicates digitally by controlling his computer using his thoughts.

Nonetheless, no BCI devices have been approved by the FDA; they remain in the experimental phase.

Reference Links:

Neuralink Implant First Human Patient Demonstration – Wired

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