In a live-streamed event that began characteristically late, Musk unveiled three not-so-little pigs: one that did not have an implant from his brain-computer interface company, Neuralink; one that had been implanted in the past; and Gertrude, who currently has a prototype of the device.
Gertrude shuffled around her pen, sniffing the ground and eating, while loud beeps and blips filled the air and a display showed real-time spikes in her brain activity. Musk explained that Gertrude had the implant inserted in her head two months before, and that it connected to neurons in her snout. When she touched something with her snout, it sent out neural spikes that were detected by the more than 1,000 electrodes in the implant.
“Pigs are actually quite similar to people. If we’re going to figure out things for people, then pigs are a good choice,” Musk explained during a question-and-answer session after the pig reveal, soon adding, “If the device is lasting in the pig, as it lasted in there for two months and going strong, then that’s a good sign the device is robust for people.”
Musk says he hopes the implant could one day help quadriplegics control smartphones, and perhaps even endow users with a sort of telepathy. Like existing brain-machine interfaces, it would collect electrical signals sent out by the brain and interpret them as actions.
San Francisco-based Synchron makes a wireless device that’s placed using the blood vessels — averting the need for surgery to get the device into the brain. It announced it got breakthrough designation from the FDA this week. And it’s begun testing the device in people.
Yet these efforts tend to be confined to labs for a number of reasons: They’re expensive, bulky, require training (of both the user and the computer), and, when it comes to an under-the-skull implant, the person outfitted with it generally must be physically tethered to a computer for it to work. They also tend to be limited to painstakingly slow applications, such as typing.
The surgical procedure required to embed these devices in the brain can be complicated, too — these days, the skull is typically cut open, the brain is exposed, chips are installed, connectors are mounted to the skull, and the head is stitched up. Musk claimed last year that Neuralink’s robot would instead be able to implant wires under a person’s skull as threads, bypassing blood vessels and causing “minimal trauma”.
Neuralink, which was founded in 2016, has previously tested an wired version of its implant in rats (and Musk indicated it has enabled a monkey to control a computer with its brain, as well).