In April, Elon Musk’s neurotech startup Neuralink demonstrated a controversial experiment where a macaque monkey with two “Link” devices implanted in his brain was seen playing a simple video game solely with his mind. The same type of brain implant could be experimented in humans as soon as next year, the CEO said.
“We have a chance with Neuralink to restore full-body functionality to someone who has a spinal cord injury,” Musk, who is also the CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, said in a video interview during The Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council Conference on Monday.
Neuralink’s ultimate goal is to create a brain-machine interface where human consciousness and machine intelligence converge into one. But early use cases will focus on helping people with paralysis and other neurological disorders regain control over their lives.
“I think we have a chance—and I emphasize a chance—to be able to allow someone who cannot walk or use their arms to be able to walk again naturally,” Musk said during Monday’s conference, adding, “I don’t want to raise hopes unreasonably, but I’m increasingly convinced that this could be done.”
Reiterating his cautious optimism, he later clarified on Twitter, “I am definitely not saying that we can for sure do this, but I am increasingly confident that it is possible.”
In any case, Neuralink’s first challenge is to get the FDA on board with experimenting with such a device in humans. Confident that regulatory approval won’t be an issue, Musk said Neuralink’s “standards for implanting the device are higher than what the FDA requires.”
In Neuralink’s monkey experiment this spring, the animal had two brain chips implanted in an area called the motor cortex, which coordinates hand and arm movement. The experiment conductor first trained the monkey to play a video game with a joystick. During the process, the brain chips recorded the monkey’s neuron activity and then fed the data into an algorithm, which would predict his hand movements in real time. Eventually the monkey was able to play the game (move a cursor to where he wanted) without touching the joystick.
A human experiment aiming to repair neurological functions will likely be more complicated and involve “bridging signals between existing neurons,” Musk explained on Twitter later Monday.
“Replacing faulty/missing neurons with circuits is the right way to think about it,” he wrote in response to a Twitter user asking how a Neuralink device could help restore memory loss or delusion from a stroke. “Many problems can be solved just bridging signals between existing neurons. Progress will accelerate when we have devices in humans (hard to have nuanced conversations with monkeys) next year.”