Elon Musk’s Start-Up: A Macaque with Telekinesis
Recently, Neuralink, the digital company of Elon Musk, has shown an impressive video where a common macaque plays ping-pong just using the power of its mind. It sits in front of the screen, its mouth glued to the tube from which it is fed a banana smoothie and, without hands, controls the platform, throwing a digital ball from corner to corner.
Maybe Musk will be ready to speak about it in the Clubhouse app. Don’t use it? You can read about how to get an invitation here.
It seems that Elon Musk is going to plunge us into cyberpunk: to integrate the human brain and the computer, giving paralyzed people the opportunity to control digital devices quickly and easily.
What science and technology is hidden in the macaque’s magical ability to use digital telekinesis?
Let’s get this straight.
What is Neuralink?
Neuralink is one of Elon Musk’s four most interesting companies at the forefront of modern technology. The first company, SpaceX, has been successfully flying into space for a long time. The global internet network Starlink has already begun to deliver cheap and fast internet via satellites to remote corners of the planet. Tesla is increasing the production of electric cars with unmanned control functions.
Neuralink is a project of Elon Musk, which started in 2016. The company is developing a special device that can transmit brain signals via Bluetooth. This will allow you to control your computer or smartphone directly, using brain impulses.
What about a wireless chip?
The chipping operation takes about an hour. An anesthetic is not needed. After the procedure, a person or animal can leave the clinic on the same day. The most interesting thing is that no one would guess that a person has a chip implanted in their head.
That sounds a little weird—as if all the terrible nightmares of conspiracy theorists are taking real shape. Conspiracy theorists and Instagram influencers will soon shift the focus from Bill Gates and 5G to Elon Musk and Neuralink.
Back in 2019, Neuralink announced its project to create link electrodes that can be embedded in the brain of a living being. Initially, the wires and connector protruded through the skin. Thus, it was noticeable that the living being has a technological chip. Therefore, it was necessary to develop a design that would hide a chip in the brain.
Last year, the company revealed a wireless version of Link. It has 1024 electrodes that register information about brain signals. Link transmits them “over the air” to the receiver at a distance of up to 10 meters. The charge of the chip is enough for the whole day, and the battery is replenished at night with the help of magnetic charging.
This chip looks like a 23-by-8-millimeter coin. It can be implemented by a special operation. The surgeon will insert the chip under the skin and connect it to the neurons of the brain.
Tests on pigs
People, of course, haven’t inserted such chips in the brain before. This was all still a theory. But last year, Musk presented a special device that was tested on two different pigs. They were inserted two chips. One of them had it removed later to check how the nervous system would react. The pig felt good.
The pigs then showed how the chip reads the activity of neurons. It was placed above the brain’s tactile center and showed bursts of neural activity when the pigs touched objects.
Pigs were chosen for the tests because they are similar to humans and love food. These animals remain an important tool for confirming the security of the Link chip.
The magic of digital telepathy
Even though the experiment with the pig was successful, scientists needed such an animal’s brain, whose behavioral features would repeat the human ones. Therefore, the preference was given to the macaque.
The selected individual was implanted with two chips: one in the brain’s left cortex and the other in the right. Thus, it was possible to control both the left and right parts of the body.
Many scientists believe that neurons in the motor cortex are responsible for controlling and performing various actions. They are active both before and during the movement. However, some neurons may be active when performing specific actions. Therefore, it became possible to establish a link between macaque activity and the direction of movement.
Thanks to this, scientists from Neuralink can establish patterns of neural activity that are characteristic of certain movements and predict the direction and speed of the upcoming gesture. These predictions are used to control the cursor or other computer object—for example, a racket in a game that Neuralink called MindPong.
Here’s how it works in stages:
Stage #1: After implantation, the chip amplifies the voltage several times, and writes data to the brain using electrodes. The chip uses an algorithm that detects activity peaks at each electrode and combines them. Every 25 milliseconds, the chip transmits pulses via Bluetooth to a nearby computer.
Stage #2: This computer has a program that decodes the pulses. It collects peaks on multiple time scales—from 25 to 250 milliseconds—to reveal different temporal properties of neuronal activity.
Stage #3: The sum of these bursts, current and recent, is then calculated for each dimension. The speed of operation of a particular movement is taken into account. The decoder program sends the final set of signals in the form of commands to the game. With their help, the MindPong racket is controlled on the special screen.
The decoder needs to be calibrated to link these patterns of brain activity to certain macaque movements. It is used in a joystick and another game that encourages the macaque to guide the white ball into the orange area in exchange for a banana smoothie from the tube. Macaque hand movements are associated with activity occurring in its motor cortex.
Some neurons are more active when the macaque moves the joystick up, while others are more active when pointing it to the right. Using mathematical modeling, patterns of neuro activity are associated with the movements of the joystick. This calibration takes only a few minutes.
Then the joystick is turned off, the macaque continues to move it, but the cursor moves with the help of the chip in its head.
Neuralink plans to create decent living conditions for paralyzed people. However, to check and calibrate the decoder, it is necessary that the person can move his hands. However, scientists have shown that neurons remain active and tuned to movement even in paralyzed people. For calibration, it just needs to imagine that it moves the mouse across the mat.
The main goal of Neuralink is to empower people, including those who suffer from cerebral palsy or brain diseases. The device will allow you to control hormones, cope with anxiety and make the brain work more efficiently. And also-listen to music, even at those frequencies that are usually inaccessible to human hearing, and even communicate telepathically.
What do the skeptics say?
So far, it is too early to talk about the advantages and disadvantages of the technology: the chip has not yet been tested on a living person, and no scientific data about the experiment has been provided.
The scientists noted that the new version of the microchip is significantly better than the previous one-both in terms of technical characteristics and capabilities. They hope that the microchip will help to read the brain’s electrical waves and better understand the nature of neurological diseases.
On the other hand, the creation of the final version of such a device may take much longer than promised in the company Mask. The human brain is very complex, and any incorrect intervention can harm it. To decipher all the information that our brain transmits, we need much more knowledge about it — and this is the main problem.
It is also difficult to call all this a technological revolution: analogs of neural chips have been implanted for decades — for example, in patients with Parkinson’s disease or spinal injuries.
Brain–machine neural interfaces have been studied for decades, and this is far from new. But, as is the case with other Elon Musk projects, Neuralink strives to make them as accessible and practical as possible. Previous systems required, and still require, wires, a specialist technician, and medical staff to connect.
The Musk’s system does not need wires and implantation is carried out automatically, quickly, and safely, according to the developers themselves. And the engineering achievements of the digital age allow us to overcome the obstacles that arise along the way. Neuralink says that a critical amount of technology has been achieved, which at this stage allows them to implement their bold ideas.
Neuralink has huge ambitions, and they make quite bold statements there. But the company cites a lot of research, focuses on breakthroughs in technology, and conducts impressive demonstrations. Nevertheless, all this should be taken with a healthy degree of skepticism.