Elon Musk is known for trumpeting bold and sometimes brash plans. So it was no surprise last week when the Tesla founder made an announcement—in front of a live audience and streamed online, with a video trailer and thematic music—that his new company Neuralink plans to sync our brains with artificial intelligence. (Don’t worry, he assured the audience, “this is not a mandatory thing.”)
What was surprising was the breathless coverage in most media, which lacked context or appreciation for the two decades of research on which Neuralink’s work stands.
Neuralink, based in San Francisco, has been in stealth mode since it was founded by Musk a couple of years ago. The company has reportedly raised over $150 million, including $100 million from Musk.
It was known that Musk founded Nueralink to produce an implantable brain-computer-interface (BCI), but details have been scanty. Last week’s live presentation was the first time Musk revealed some of the concrete progress the company has made.
Musk wants to develop a brain implant that enables people to control computers, prosthetics, and other medical devices using only thoughts. No typing or speaking necessary.
Creating this kind of interface involves recording electrical brain activity, decoding it, and translating it into computer commands. Some systems also input sensory stimulation into the brain, which is helpful in, for example, controlling a prosthetic. Each step of this chain of technologies can demand its own area of study, and lots of scientists have devoted their careers to one or more components.
Neuralink appears to have moved the needle forward in the field of BCI hardware. According to Musk, the company’s scientists have developed an array of 3000 electrodes on flexible threads that can be implanted into the brain of a rat. In previous designs from other researchers, the number of electrodes that could be safely implanted into one brain has numbered in the hundreds.
If Neuralink’s announcement is true (and by the way, Neuralink has not published its findings in a peer-reviewed journal), then this is a nice advance for the field of BCI. But reading the media coverage, one would think Neuralink invented the concept of decoding brain signals and was poised to revolutionize human processing capability.
“The media coverage was essentially riding on top of the company’s pitch,” says Rajesh Rao, a professor at the University of Washington and author of the book Brain-Computer Interfacing, who spoke with IEEE Spectrum in an interview. Neuralink appears to have made some interesting advancements, he says, but “there was a lack of acknowledgment of what people in the field have accomplished over the last two decades or more.”
That gaping hole came despite the fact that Neuralink presenters emphasized the history on which they stand, and the long road ahead of them. “The work we’re doing doesn’t come out of thin air,” said Philip Sabes, senior scientist at Neuralink. “We’re building on over a century of neuroscience research and decades of neural engineering research.”
Read more about Elon’s neural transmitters here: