If you are a big fan of sci-fi movies, you may have watched dozens of scenes where a chip is being implanted in a human brain. Well, this is no longer a sci-fi movie scene but a reality—thanks to Neuralink.
One week ago, Neuralink, a neuro-technological startup, implanted a brain-computer interface in the first human subject. While breaking the news on his X (formally known as Twitter) handle, Elon Musk, the Co-founder of Neuralink, expressed his excitement about the initial results of the implant that he claimed “show promising neuron spike detection—which means that the brain chip was able to detect neurons’ activity in the subject’s brain. The human brain consists of different parts interlinked by nerve cells called neurons. The activity of neurons in the human brain is responsible for initiating and controlling every aspect of our decision-making processes, including walking, sitting, and talking.
According to neuroscientists, the human brain contains an average of 80 billion neurons, that communicate with one another by exchanging a meager voltage called a spike. Therefore “neuron spike” is the activity of exchanging voltage between neurons. Through the neurons’ activity, the brain makes decisions that trigger body movement or physical actions such as eating, walking, and speaking.
Neuralink’s brain-computer interface (BCI) detects and transmits brain activity as a signal to any destined computer device. Though there are no elaborate details about the person who received the first implant or how and where Neuralink carried out the procedure, a further statement by Elon insinuated that the initial users of Neuralink’s brain chip would be those who have lost their limbs.
“Imagine if Stephen Hawking could communicate faster than a speed typist or auctioneer. That is the goal.” Elon cited in his tweet.
According to the developers, Neuralink would give humans the ability to control computers and move robotic limbs by mere thinking—which would, by extension, improve the lives of people suffering from epilepsy, paralysis, cervical spinal cord injury, quadriplegia, and neurological disorders.
WHAT IS NEURALINK AND WHAT DOES IT DO?
There are currently over 100 ongoing studies on neurotechnology, most of which focus on brain-computer interface. In 2016, Elon Musk and seven other scientists started Neuralink, a startup for developing a fully-implanted Brbrainomputer interface. The Neuralink’s brain-computer interface is developing a wireless device that is tiny enough to fit into a human skull under its Precise Robotically Implanted Brain-Computer Interface (PRIME) study—to develop an interface capable of establishing and maintaining seamless communication between the human brain and the computer. According to Neuralink, “The study involves placing a small, cosmetically invisible implant in a part of the brain that plans movement.”
Unlike other neurotech startups (such as Synchron), )whose implants require a less or non-invasive procedure, Neuralink adopted an extensively invasive approach that requires fully implanting wireless devices into the human brain. However, to mitigate human error in the procedure, neuralink developed a dedicated surgical robot that handles the implant procedure, such as cutting and stitching, with precision. Neuralink also bragged about the reliability and efficiency of its surgical robot, saying that the threads of their implant are so fine that “they can’t be inserted by the human hand.”
According to Neuralink, “The study involves placing a small, cosmetically invisible implant in a part of the brain that plans movement.
On May 25, 2023, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued approval to Neuralink to carry out its first trial implant on humans. Four months after the FDA approval, Neuralink officially declared their Patients Registry open for human volunteers who wish to participate in the “first-in-human clinical trial” of their brain-computer interface device. Eventually, on January 30, 2023, Elon Musk announced that Neuralink had implanted its first product, Telepathy (as Elon called it). Elon claimed that telepathy can enable users to control their phones and computers “and through them almost any device, just by thinking.” He said
SAFETY AND ETHICAL CONCERNS AROUND NEURALINK
The emergence of BCI is a remarkable advancement in human-machine communication. However, even though Elon insinuated that the first human clinical trial was successful as the patient was already “recovering well,” a lot is not yet clear about the safety and ethical measures put in place to prevent potential side effects of telepathy on users’ medical fitness and data privacy.
For instance, in one of the trials on animals, Pager, a 9-year-old macaque, had a neural link implanted in each side of his brain. After six weeks of the implant, Pager was seen in a video that appeared to be a successful trial—the monkey was keeping well with the implant as he played video games while his neural activity was detected and transmitted to a computer in real-time.
However, controversial debates have surrounded Neuralink’s past trial on monkeys and pigs alleged to have died as a result of the implant. In response to the allegations, Elon admitted in a tweet that Neuralink carried out its trial on terminal monkeys; therefore, their cause of death had nothing to do with the implant. However, professional bodies and Neurallink’s former employees have come out to challenge and debunk Elon’s unconvincing claims.
In September 2023, the WIRED reported that a Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine requested the United States Securities and Exchange Commission to probe the veracity of Elon’s claim on the cause of death of the monkeys used in Neuralink’s trial implant. The committee argued that the veterinary records showed that the monkeys died as a result of “the complications with the implant procedure,” which included partial paralysis, bloody diarrhea, and cerebral edema.
Speaking with the WIRED, a former Neuralink employee described Elon’s claim as “ridiculous,” if not a “straight fabrication.”
The anonymous ex-employee confirmed that, as part of the preparation for the implant surgery, the monkeys were subjected to a year-long behavioral training, which he believed was long enough to exempt the monkeys already close to death.
On privacy concerns, there is still a need for a much more obvious roadmap for ensuring data privacy, accuracy, transparency, control, and security in BCIs. BCI transmits personal and medical neuro data in real-time, which includes the pattern of users’ thoughts, emotions, intentions, and mental health conditions. Having BCIs linked to individual profiles exposes human users to possibly intended exploitation, abuse, or manipulation.
Generally, tech devices are predominantly vulnerable to malicious cyber-attacks, and this trait is also inherent in BCIs—whose consequences of their vulnerabilities extend beyond data breaches.
A computer security expert, Roger Grimes, once said that the Neuralink implant could be hackable, therefore users’ lives could be at risk. Though Roger also emphasized that there are currently some stringent factors that may make hacking Neuralink almost impossible, he did not rule out the fact that Neuralink, like any other chip, is prone to cyberattack.
“History has shown that most, if not all, past implantable medical devices and chips are hackable.
“Why would this one be any different,” Grimes rhetorically asked during an interview with the U.S. Sun