First In-Human Trial of Elon Musk's Brain Computer Interface Begins
Neuralink is beginning human trials of its technology to restore autonomy in people who have quadriplegia – but the company's vision is to augment otherwise healthy individuals in the future
Back in 2016 Elon Musk Tweeted “Creating a neural lace is the thing that really matters for humanity to achieve symbiosis with machines”
Yesterday the brain-computer interface company he founded in 2017 to help achieve this — Neuralink — implanted the one of its devices in a human for the first time.
This isn’t the first human brain-computer implant by any means. As the Washington Post reports, “At least 42 people worldwide have had brain-computer implants … including a paralyzed man who fist-bumped President Barack Obama with a robotic hand in 2016.”
And yet the sophistication of Neuralink’s technology for implanting their device, together with their decidedly non-medical vision of “[unlocking] human potential tomorrow”, mark this out as a step forward to keep a close eye on.
As I was working on Films from the Future back in 2018 I was so intrigued by where Musk was going with Neuralink that I wrote about the company in the chapter on the film Ghost in the Shell.
I was especially interested in (and a little concerned by) what happens when “entrepreneurs and technologists become ever more focused on fixing what they see as the limitations of our biological selves, the boundaries between biology, machines, and cyberspace are becoming increasingly blurred.”
It also didn’t escape my notice that Neuralink’s early recruitment tagline was “No neuroscience experience is required” — something that may help explain some of the the regulatory and ethical challenges the company has faced recently.
Yesterday’s announcement on X (formerly Twitter) by Musk is a reasonably small step forward toward Neuralink’s ambitions to “restore autonomy” to users who lack it. But it could mark a more significant step toward changing the landscape around brain-computer interface enabled augmentation in otherwise healthy individuals.
Neuralink’s current human trials are focused on restoring a degree of autonomy to people who have paralysis in all four limbs. The company’s PRIME study is designed to test out their brain-computer interface (BCI) implantation technology and “assess the initial functionality of our BCI for enabling people with quadriplegia to control external devices with their thoughts”.
But the ambitions don’t stop there. As the Neuralink website articulates, “In the future, we hope to restore capabilities such as vision, motor function, and speech, and eventually expand how we experience the world.”
It’s this last line that indicates future human augmentation is still very much part of Neuralink’s vision. This is where, if the company succeeds, it could be a major disruptor in how we think about norms and expectations around human ability — including who gets to be be “augmented” and how this impacts everything from education to jobs. (Imagine, for instance, a future where a BCI is a prerequisite for some jobs … or some educational programs)
There are echoes of visions of the future like this in how Neuralink’s in-human trials are being discussed amongst Elon Musk’s followers on X.
Unlike pretty much any other medical device, company, or trial I’m aware of, Neuralink is, by proxy, caught up in a cult of personality that is fixated on the idea that we can use technology to reinvent what it means to be human.
To Musk’s fan base, these human trials are not about testing a new device or procedure, nor are they about medical interventions that could expand someone’s ability to regain control over their environment. Rather, they herald a future where we’re a hop, step and a jump from implanting devices in everyone’s brain that will transform them into superhumans — albeit superhumans that are locked into a subscription plan that governs what they can do and what they cannot.
Musk doesn’t discourage this. He’s even calling Neuralink’s first product “telepathy”.
The reality, of course, is that we’re decades — generations possibly — away from brain-computer interfaces that live up to the aspirations of Musk’s followers. Despite the hype though, I’m still intrigued to see how this technology evolves.
Neuralink’s technology certainly offers promising potential for restoring some physical abilities to patients who have lost them. And here it could be groundbreaking. How far the company can push what is possible though is still very unclear. There’s a gaping biological and technological chasm between what the company is currently doing and some of the more speculative ideas around what could be achieved with BCIs.
And, if course, we still have very little idea what the risk landscape will look like around devices that allow your brain to be wirelessly connected to the internet via your phone …
But if Neuralink is successful in pushing beyond medical treatments to ability-augmenting applications in healthy individuals, this could be a game changer when it comes to thinking about what it might mean to be human in the future.
Update: In the first version of this article I inadvertently referred to people “suffering” from quadriplegia. As my good colleague Gregor Wolbring pointed out, this implies a judgement that those not considered “human-typical” are suffering and need to be fixed — which is clearly not right or appropriate. The text has been updated.