It has been Elon Musk’s dream for decades to create a literal cyborg by combining the human brain with artificial intelligence through futuristic brain-computer interfaces. His controversial company, Neuralink, was created to reach this ambitious goal and so far it has made multiple astonishing accomplishments.

Significant steps have already been made toward this goal, including the installation of the first brain chip into a human patient in February this year – a step closer to realizing this sci-fi vision.

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Although the details of the procedure and the overall results that it had on the patient’s capabilities were not shared in detail, it was an important announcement that made the medical community and the general public wonder if we are getting any closer to seeing this kind of technology being used and marketed en masse.

In this article, we share further details about Neuralink’s journey toward achieving its groundbreaking mission – what they have done thus far and what is to come.

Founded in 2016, Neuralink has been developing for nearly a decade a cutting-edge brain implant that can help patients with neurological impairments and injuries restore their vision, movement, and communication skills. If it can collect enough of the right data from the patient’s brain, it might be able to use brainwaves to control prosthetics or even a computer. However, the project’s ambitions go beyond just medical applications.

“With a high bandwidth, brain-machine interface, we can actually go along for the ride,” Musk proclaimed about his desire to symbiotically combine humanity with advanced AI systems to avoid being “left behind” as a species.

After years of recruiting top talent in the field of neuroscience and performing tests on animals, Neuralink reached a pivotal milestone last year when it received the approval of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to start implanting its devices in human clinical trial participants.

On 28 January, Musk revealed that the first surgery had successfully taken place.

“The first @Neuralink human received an implant last month and is recovering well.”, Musk announced on X, the social media platform he owns. “Initial results show promising neuron spike detection.”

While Musk’s brief statement lacked specifics, experts say that the sole achievement of implanting a device in a human patient safely represents a monumental feat after many decades of brain-computer interface (BCI) research across labs and startups worldwide.

“Getting a device into a person is no small feat,” said Robert Gaunt, associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh. “But I don’t think even Elon Musk would have taken on a project like this if it were not for the research and demonstrated capability over decades in neuroscience.” The FDA wouldn’t have approved the trial if it weren’t considered relatively safe for the patient anyway.

Bringing “Sci-Fi” Concepts and Ideas Closer to Reality

Researchers have long pursued the idea of BCIs that can decipher the electrical pulses generated by neurons to decipher and possibly control human thoughts and intentions.

Research in this particular field started in the 1990s when scientists proved that implanted devices could be used to collect neural signals and translate them into instructions used to control robotic limbs and computer interfaces.

In 2004, a major breakthrough occurred when the Utah Array, a chip lined with dozens of wire-thin electrodes that pierce the brain, was first implanted in a human to allow a paralyzed person to control a computer cursor via neural activity.

Since then, research projects and tech titans like Meta Platforms (META) have explored the possibilities and applications of BCIs and have provided resources to startups and labs that are actively investigating and developing viable products that can achieve this kind of feat.

However, for Musk, the therapeutic applications of BCI are just an initial step. His bolder vision is centered around what he calls the “existential threat” that artificial intelligence poses to mankind.

From Musk’s standpoint, society, governments, and companies should be more worried about how AI could turn against humanity if the technology spikes out of control. To be prepared for such a development, achieving “human/machine symbiosis” would allegedly give us the ability to maintain our dominance as a species. Musk has deemed this task a “species-level important.”

However, critics argue that Neuralink’s advances still put humanity at a significant distance from achieving that kind of symbiosis. Moreover, the risk involved in taking invasive surgery like the one needed to implant these devices into the brain may not be worth the benefits for a significant number of people – at least not at this point.

“You’ve got to ask yourself, would you risk brain surgery just to be able to order a pizza on your phone?”, commented Anne Vanhoestenberghe, a professor from King’s College in London.

“It’s nothing novel, but implantable technology takes a long time to mature, and reach a stage where companies have all the pieces of the puzzle, and can really start to put them together,” she added. Neuralink may not be the one to make the leap to create an entirely new kind of human but it’s likely to at least be an important stepping stone.

Standing in the way of Musk’s utopian (or dystopian, depending on one’s view) BCI-enabled vision is the task of shrinking all the necessary components into a minimal device that could be surgically added into the human brain safely.

While BCI implants have made steady advancements, Neuralink seeks to reimagine the entire system with a fully automated robotic surgery and a coin-sized computer chip that can wirelessly beam neural data after being inserted through a small hole in the skull.

Key to this endeavor are Neuralink’s “threads” electrodes – hair-thin neural probes with 16 recording sensors distributed along their length that could precisely target specific neurons and synapses within the brain.

The N1 chip contains 64 of these threads. They give it the ability to monitor over 1,000 distinct channels of neural activity.

Progress has not been easy and Musk has compared Neuralink’s efforts to that of the Wright brothers when they prepared to make their first flight.

In 2019, a federal investigation into the company revealed that Neuralink experienced an “adverse surgical event” that was adequately reported to authorities. According to Reuters, the incident involved sealing a monkey’s skull with materials that were not approved for this use.

An investigation performed by the Department of Agriculture (USDA) ultimately revealed that there were no compliance breaches.

However, evidence seen by Reuters revealed that at least 86 pigs and two monkeys were harmed as part of Neuralink’s experiments due to repeated human errors. Moreover, in late 2022, reports started to surface regarding employee churn due to rushed deadlines.

Neuralink persisted in its quest and, in May 2023, they caught a break as the FDA granted Neuralink clearance to recruit participants for its first human clinical study that would evaluate the safety of its implant and robotic surgery procedure as well as test the functionality of transmitting brain data.

Ideal candidates included people with quadriplegia caused by spinal injuries or suffering from neurological diseases like ALS.

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Just over six months later, Musk revealed that the inaugural implantation had taken place – a stunning leap forward on the path to merging man and machine.

The name of the patient was Noland Arbaugh, who suffered a diving accident in 2016 that resulted in quadriplegia. Arbaugh seems to be quite happy with the surgery as he can now control a computer with just his thoughts and he can even play chess again.

Musk’s vague statements regarding the results of the proceeding included a statement saying that there was a “promising neuron spike detection”. This suggested that the implant was able to successfully capture and transmit signals from the neurons that were located near the device’s threads.

Despite this development, Neuralink managed to record videos that showed Arbaugh operating a computer by using the chip and playing games on the device.

However, it was reported that there was a decline in the amount of data that the chip sent to the system. It appears that some of the threads that were implanted into Arbaugh’s head started to move and dislodge from their ideal positions. The reason for this setback was not disclosed.

“Sure we’re still working out the kinks and stuff. But once we get this figured out, there’s no reason for [the implant] not to be out there,” Arbaugh told Neuralink employees during a meeting on March 1.

Neuronal Spike Detection Represented a Huge Step Forward But Challenges Remain

Getting functional “spike” readings represents a key initial hurdle and proof-of-concept for establishing the viability of Neuralink’s neural interface. However, according to experts, it’s one of many milestones that still need to be achieved to create a truly high-bandwidth connection.

“It basically means that, at least on some level, it’s working,” Professor Gaunt said about the breakthrough.

In addition to refining the algorithms for decoding more sophisticated neural patterns, Neuralink must still overcome significant technical challenges around issues like:

  • Longevity of the implant and its ability to remain securely connected over time.
  • Preventing immune rejection or scarring that could disrupt signaling (or hurt the patient).
  • Expanding the number of input channels for higher data transmission.

Musk did reveal that this first trial is aimed at restoring basic digital functionality for paralyzed patients, such as letting them control computer interfaces or smartphones hands-free and so far it seems to have been quite successful.

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Meanwhile, future goals include allowing patients to operate robotic prosthetics or even reanimate their own muscles through neural signaling.

“Imagine if Stephen Hawking could communicate faster than a speed typist or auctioneer. That is the goal,” Musk said.

AI-Powered Superhumans are Off the Table… At Least for Now

While the wider neuroscience and biotech community reacted with a mix of optimism and skepticism to Neuralink’s milestone, most agreed that it represented a significant achievement worth celebrating – even if formidable challenges remain.

“I think it’s really too soon to be talking about [brain-AI integration],” cautioned Dr. David Brandman, co-director of the UC Davis Neuroprosthetics Lab. “There are people in need, and any emphasis on ‘what if’ and ‘what could happen’ is doing a disservice to people that need a device.”

Brandman’s team is one of the several working on similar “brain-computer” or “brain-machine” interfaces geared toward restoring bodily functions in people who suffer from paralysis and neurological disorders.

The researchers emphasized that, so far, there is no tangible evidence that these implants can improve normal human functioning or capabilities.

“The idea that these devices will allow us to achieve any sort of superhuman ability is just science fiction at this point,” Gaunt concluded.

The road ahead for Neuralink to achieve its mission still seems long and will hardly be free of additional roadblocks – both technological, regulatory, and societal. However, the kind of progress that such an implant would produce for the human species deserve the level of effort that the team is putting into developing the technology.