Neuralink plans to seek U.S. FDA approval for human clinical trials as early as next year to test its ambitious brain-computer interface technology, officials said at a lengthy presentation this week. The startup, founded by billionaire Elon Musk, wants to implant tiny electrodes inside a patient’s skull, allowing the person to control computers or a smartphone wirelessly.
As many as four implants could be inserted, opening the potential for paralyzed people to move or stroke-impaired people to talk. That’s ambitious, but Musk hasn’t been afraid of a challenge with other ambitious plans such as a reusable rocket.
Musk is also seeking human symbiosis with artificial intelligence, a “full brain-machine interface.” Humans could “go along for the ride,” he told an audience in San Francisco late Tuesday. “We can have the option of effectively merging with AI.”
Musk compared the surgical procedure to something as painless as Lasik eye surgery. Much of the presentation showed how Neuralink has developed a tiny chip that reads data from electrodes made of polymers placed near brain neurons and synapses. There would be hundreds of these electrodes implanted, each a thread about one-tenth as wide as a human hair.
A sophisticated robot would perform the surgeries to place the electrodes in the proper locations. Implanting the electrodes into rats has produced far more information than other systems embedded into humans.
Musk has invested $100 million in the project and has raised another $58 million from investors, according to several reports. Tuesday’s event was designed partly to attract more workers to the company, which now numbers 90 employees. On its website, Neuralink said it needs workers with a wide variety of expertise. The company is seeking a number of engineers with concentrations from materials to optics to robotics as well as a neuroscientist.
Human-computer implants are not a new idea. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has funded research allowing quadriplegics to move robot arms for simple tasks like drinking and the Pentagon has financed technology to use light instead of embedded electrodes to gather information, according to the New York Times.