Elon Musk is at it again. Another short deadline, more lofty promises to save humanity. What’s new is allegations of “grisly” monkey experiments.
The tech multibillionaire said he expected human trials for a brain-computer interface developed by his Neuralink company to start within six months following approval from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Musk made similar promises twice before. In 2019, he said his California and Texas-based company aimed to receive regulatory approval for its brain implant by the end of 2020. At a conference in late 2021, he said he hoped human trials would start this year.
"We want to be extremely careful and certain that it will work well before putting a device into a human," Musk said at this year’s “show and tell” event at Neuralink’s Fremont headquarters.
Whether it’s Mars colonization or the mass adoption of self-driving Teslas, setting extremely short deadlines is part of Musk’s way of doing things. He had previously acknowledged he was not on time “sometimes” but insisted he gets things done.
He promised this time would be no different, tweeting after the event that the set time frame was a matter of getting through the FDA’s approval process while he was “confident” Neuralink’s device was ready for humans.
Other than a new deadline, Musk’s presentation included a demonstration of a new prototype of Neuralink’s brain-computer chip, which the company said would be wireless and rechargeable, and footage of a robot meant to perform the implantation surgery.
Fresh from his walk with Apple’s Tim Cook ahead of the event to discuss Twitter’s future on the App Store (it’s all a misunderstanding, apparently), Musk also emphasized Neuralink was working to make the device easily upgradeable.
“I’m pretty sure you would not want an iPhone 1 in your head if an iPhone 14 was available,” Musk said.
He reaffirmed the company’s goal was to enable disabled patients to move and communicate again, adding that restoring vision was among the device's first targeted human applications – even if a person was born blind.
On an even grander scale, Musk said brain implants could offer a way to match the capabilities of artificial intelligence if it becomes smarter than humans.
Other than that, this year’s presentation showed little progress from what has already been demonstrated before, and Musk said it was meant to be more of a “recruitment” event to attract new talent.
This might indicate Neuralink continues to face problems after its Co-Founder, Max Hodak, quit after last year’s event, and reports emerged in August that Musk approached competitor Synchron about a potential investment.
Synchron has already completed studies on four people in Australia. In July, it implanted its device in a patient in the US for the first time after receiving regulatory clearance.
Meanwhile, Neuralink demonstrated a video showing a monkey “typing” on a computer telepathically and then another that shows it sitting under a wireless charger. Last year, it was a monkey playing "mind pong" and, before that, a pig outfitted with a brain implant – nothing that was not demonstrated by other researchers years ago.
Neuralink’s tests with animals were called into question ahead of the event again. One group, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), has accused Neuralink of “grisly” and “sloppy” monkey experiments.
In February, the group filed a lawsuit against the University of California, Davis, where Neuralink’s employees allegedly held their experiments between 2017 and 2020 before the partnership was severed. Neuralink is said to have paid $1.4 million to use the university’s facilities.
PCMR said that the records released after the lawsuit demonstrate evidence of animal cruelty. It claimed that only seven out of 23 monkeys survived the experiments. Neuralink confirmed in February that some monkeys died during testing but denied mistreating them.
Musk indirectly addressed the issue during the presentation as videos of monkeys were playing, saying that the animals were “not strapped to the chair or anything” and that it was “kind of a fun game” for them.
“We care a great deal about animal welfare,” he said.
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