Here’s what we know about Elon Musk’s Neuralink event

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So let’s talk about Neuralink, Elon Musk’s brain-computer interface company. There is a show-and-tell event coming today at 6pm PT / 9pm ET, November 30, and normally I would do you the service of telling you where to watch it. But honestly, I don’t know, and like most Musk companies, Neuralink doesn’t have a PR department.

Pleasure! It will probably end up on YouTube.

Musk has said he wants to do human testing in 2022, but he also sucks at deadlines

One thing to keep in mind during the presentation is that the Food and Drug Administration specifically regulates medical devices – not just brain implants. That means clinical trials to get agency approval. Now I see that Neuralink has a vacancy for a “clinical research coordinator,” and earlier this year there was also a vacancy for “director of clinical trials,” so it’s possible that Musk is announcing human trials. The FDA has some thoughts on how that might work. The first human trials are usually small.

Musk has said he wanted human trials in 2022, but he’s also totally bad with deadlines and had previously said he wanted to start human trials by 2020. This kind of thing is not uncommon. For example, Musk said in 2011 that he would be ready to send humans into space within three years; the first crewed SpaceX mission was in 2020, nine years later. I’ll spare you a whole litany of bloated Tesla deadlines.

Brain-computer interfaces have a long history. An early version of a brain-computer interface was implanted in a man named Johnny Ray in 1998, allowing him to communicate through the computer. Unfortunately it was slow.

The technology improved enough that a man named Matthew Nagle, whose implant was revealed to the world in 2006, was able to play Pong with his brain alone. (Nagle said it only took him four days to figure out how.) Since then, a few other people have also received brain implants, which sometimes allow them to focus their eyes or, if they’re lucky, have a beer. Two non-Neuralink techniques for brain-machine interfaces were approved for human trials earlier this year.

A 2019 article credited solely to Musk describes the Neuralink system as having “small and flexible electrode wires,” which are implanted by a robotic surgeon. Originally there was a device that sat by the ear, but in 2020 that changed to a coin shape and flush with the top of the head. The wires are designed to be more flexible than stiff needles in other devices and can do less damage to the brain – assuming, of course, they’re still part of the design.

Neuralink first announced it was testing its devices in monkeys in 2019. The next year we got to see pigs, as well as some design changes to the device. In 2021, Neuralink released a video showing a monkey playing Pong with his brain implant. I suppose it’s possible we’ll see a new animal this year. A dog maybe.

Incidentally, the former president of Neuralink has left the company for another startup, one that aims to augment vision through a retinal implant. (Bloomberg describes this, hilariously, as a way to “manipulate the brain without implants in the skull,” something that happens all the time. No doubt I’m manipulating your brain without an implant in the skull straight away, using an advanced technology known as language.)

My personal expectations for the event, as you may have gathered, are low. Medical devices are regulated, and with anything as complex as a brain-computer interface, progress is often slow. Musk has said in the past that he uses Neuralink events to recruit talent for the company – this show-and-tell may be to fill some vacancies.

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