Jan 30 2024

Neuralink Implants Chip in Human

Elon Musk has announced that his company, Neuralink, has implanted their first wireless computer chip into a human. The chip, which they plan on calling Telepathy (not sure how I feel about that) connects with 64 thin hair-like electrodes, is battery powered and can be recharged remotely. This is exciting news, but of course needs to be put into context. First, let’s get the Musk thing out of the way.

Because this is Elon Musk the achievement gets more attention than it probably deserves, but also more criticism. It gets wrapped up in the Musk debate – is he a genuine innovator, or just an exploiter and showman? I think the truth is a little bit of both. Yes, the technologies he is famous for advancing (EVs, reusable rockets, digging tunnels, and now brain-machine interface) all existed before him (at least potentially) and were advancing without him. But he did more than just gobble up existing companies or people and slap his brand on it (as his harshest critics claim). Especially with Tesla and SpaceX, he invested his own fortune and provided a specific vision which pushed these companies through to successful products, and very likely advanced their respective industries considerably.

What about Neuralink and BMI (brain-machine interface) technology? I think Musk’s impact in this industry is much less than with EVs and reusable rockets. But he is increasing the profile of the industry, providing funding for research and development, and perhaps increasing the competition. In the end I think Neuralink will have a more modest, but perhaps not negligible, impact on bringing BMI applications to the world. I think it will end up being a net positive, and anything that accelerates this technology is a good thing.

So – how big a deal is this one advance, implanting a wireless chip into a human brain? Not very, at least not yet. Just the mere fact of implanting a chip is not a big deal. The real test is how long it lasts, how long it maintains its function, and how well it functions – none of which has yet been demonstrated. Also, other companies (although only a few) are ahead of the game already.

Here is a list of five companies (in addition to Neuralink) working on BMI technology (and I have written about many of them before). Synchron is taking a different approach, with their stentrodes. Instead of implanting in the brain, which is very invasive, they place their electrodes inside veins inside the brain, which gets them very close to brain tissue, and critically inside the skull. They completed their first human implant in 2022.

Blackrock Neurotech has a similar computer chip with an array of tiny electrodes that gets implanted in the brain. They are farther along than Neuralink and are the favorite to have a product available for use outside a research lab setting. Clearpoint Neuro is working with Blackrock to develop a robot to automatically implant their chips with the precision necessary to optimize function. They also are developing their own applications for BMI and also implants for drug delivery to brain tissue.

Braingate has also successfully implants an array of electrodes into humans that allows them to communicate wireless to external devices, allowing them to control computer interfaces or robotic limbs.

These companies are all focusing on implanted devices. There is also research into using scalp surface electrodes for a BMI connection. The advantage here is that nothing has to be implanted. The disadvantage is that the quality of the signal is much less. Which option is better depends on the application. Neurable is working on external BMI that you wear like headphones. They envision this will be used like a virtual reality application, but with neuro-reality (VR through a neurological connection, rather than goggles).

All of these advances are exciting, and I have been following them closely and reporting on them over the years. The Neuralink announcement adds them to the list of companies who have implanted a BMI chip into a human, a very exclusive club, but does not advance the cutting edge beyond where it already is.

What has me the most excited recently, actually, is advances in AI. What we need to have fairly mature BMI technology, the kind that can allow a paralyzed person to communicate effectively or control robotic limbs, is an implant (surface electrodes are not enough for these applications) that has many connection, is durable, self powered (or easily recharged), does not damage brain tissue, and maintains a consistent connection (does not move or migrate). We keep inching close to this goal. The stentrode may be a great intermediary step, good enough for decades until we develop really good implantable electrodes, which will almost certainly have to be soft and flexible.

But as we slowly and incrementally advance toward this goal (basically the hardware) we also have to keep an eye on the software. I had thought that this basically peaked and was more than advanced enough for what it needed to do – translate brain signals into what the person is thinking with enough fidelity to provide communication and control. But recent AI applications are showing how much more powerful this software can be. This is what AI is good at – taking lots of data and making sense of it. The same way it can make a deep fake of someone’s voice, or recreate a work of art in the style of a specific artist, it can take the jumble of blurry signals from the brain and assemble it into coherent speech (at least that’s the goal). This essentially means we can do much more with the hardware we have.

This is the kind of thing that might make Stentrode the leader of the pack – they sacrifice a little resolution for being much safer and less invasive. But that sacrifice may be more than compensated for with a good AI interface.

The bottom line is that this industry is advancing nicely. We are at the cusp of going from the laboratory to early medical applications. From there we will go to more advanced medical applications, and then eventually to consumer applications. It should be exciting to watch.


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