Complex Made Simple

Neuralink 101: Elon Musk shows off his machine-brain interface with live-animal demonstration

After providing much-needed details on his ambitious sci-fi-esque brain-machine interface Neuralink last year, Tesla CEO and innovator Elon Musk went on stage on Friday to show an early demo of the tech, implanted into a pig's brain.

Neuralink is a machine-brain interface that consists of more than 1024 extremely-thin electrodes implanted into the brain by a robot surgeon connected to a microchip implant in the skull "It's kind of like a Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires," he explained during the presentation As a first step, Musk has said that he wants Neuralink to "solve important brain and spine problems with a seamlessly implanted device

After providing much-needed details on his ambitious sci-fi-esque brain-machine interface Neuralink last year, Tesla CEO and innovator Elon Musk went on stage on Friday to show an early demo of the tech, implanted into a pig’s brain. 

“It’s kind of like a Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires,” he explained during the presentation, which he emphasizes he was hosting not to raise funds or promote his product, but to recruit new talent to their team. The company currently employs around 100 people, he said, and hopes to bring that number up to 10,000. 

Let’s break down what Neuralink is, what it’s goals are, and what the live-animal demonstration was all about. 

What is Neuralink? 

Neuralink is a machine-brain interface that consists of more than 1024 extremely-thin electrodes implanted into the brain by a robot surgeon connected to a microchip implant in the skull. The surgical process is expected to be done in less than a day without general anesthesia, as per Musk’s claims. 

Since last year’s reveal, the overall interface has been redesigned and simplified, with the implant no longer resting under the ear, but firmly in the skull with a much smaller visual profile, “like a large coin,” as Musk described it. “If it’s under your hair, you can’t see it at all.”

neuralink redesign 2020Screenshot from Neuralink presentation

The implant battery lasts all day supposedly, and can be wirelessly charged overnight, like a smartphone.

As for the company itself, it was founded in 2016, officially revealed in 2017, and made its big debut last year. 

What is the purpose of Neuralink? neuralink implant processA visual representation of how the interface will be implanted by a robot surgeon. 
As a first step, Musk has said that he wants Neuralink to “solve important brain and spine problems with a seamlessly implanted device.” He went on to explain that everyone will encounter neurological problems over time, including but not limited to memory loss, hearing loss, blindness, depression and addiction. 

“All of your senses, your sight, hearing, feeling, pain, these are all electrical signals sent by neurons to your brain,” he continued. “If you can correct these signals, you can solve everything from memory loss, hearing loss, blindness, paralysis… these can all be solved with an implantable Neuralink. You need an electronic thing to solve an electronic problem.”

neuralink coin sized implant

The implant will even be able to warn you of a heart attack, or even play music directly to your brain. 

In the long-term, however, Musk wants Neuralink to merge the human brain with AI where we can reap the full benefits of being connected to our technology. Essentially, to enable human “symbiosis with artificial intelligence.”

The “Three Little Pigs” demo

Named by Musk after the classic fairy tale, he introduced a live demo using 3 pigs: the first had no implant, the second had one currently in its skull, and third previously had the interface implanted, but it has since been removed. 

The key to this demo was the third pig, which Musk used to demonstrate his previous point that you can have the implant removed or upgraded at later date with no aftereffects. Note however that this is still a rudimentary comparison and cannot necessarily be extrapolated to humans.  

The pig with the implant, Gertrude, was used to show how she was behaving completely normal even with an implant in her skull for 2 months. Additionally, Musk used her to demonstrate the digital feedback that the brain interface was recording from Gertrude’s neurons, many of which are found in her snout, depicting Neuralink’s effectiveness in monitoring the brain. 

neuralink pig brain activityNeuralink allows scientists to monitor the position of the pig’s limbs with high accuracy.

The implant will not only be able to read brain activity, but will also have ‘write’ capabilities too where it will be able to influence and stimulate the brain, eventually solving the neurological problems Musk discussed. 

Human trials 

Musk revealed that Neuralink received the Breakthrough Device designation by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which according to the regulator body “offers manufacturers an opportunity to interact with the FDA’s experts through several different program options to efficiently address topics as they arise during the premarket review phase, which can help manufacturers receive feedback from the FDA and identify areas of agreement in a timely way. Manufacturers can also expect prioritized review of their submission.”

Besides pigs, Neuralink was previously tested on a monkey that was able to use its implant to control a computer.