Elon Musk dreams big. Now, Neuralink, a company in which he has invested $100 million, is attempting to use a “sewing machine-like” robot that can implant ultrathin threads deep into the brain to connect it with a small computer behind the ear, according to John Markoff of the New York Times.
The company revealed that it will use a small processor on the surface of the skull that will capture information from electrodes along a tiny thread that may penetrate a few centimeters into the brain. It would be “as safe and painless as Lasik eye surgery,” according to Musk.
Neuralink, which hopes to start working with human subjects as soon as next year, claims the system will eventually be able to read and write huge amounts of information. At the moment the company needs to overcome some engineering challenges that Musk has been trying to solve, according to Shivon Zilis, project director at Neuralink. The company, which has 90 employees, has received $158 million in funding.
In a recent briefing, Neuralink executives discussed their work publicly and demonstrated a system connected to a laboratory rat reading information from 1,500 electrodes, 15 times better than current systems embedded in humans. That could be adequate for scientific research or medical applications.
According to Max Hodak, Neuralink’s president and one of the company’s founders, “We want this burden of stealth mode off of us so that we can keep building and do things like normal people, such as publish papers.”
Hodak shared Musk’s vision that Neuralink technology might soon help humans with various ailments, such as helping amputees to regain mobility or helping people to hear, speak and see. Surgeons would have to drill holes through the skull to implant the threads, but they hope to use a laser beam to pierce the skull with a series of tiny holes in the future.
According to Hodak, “One of the big bottlenecks is that a mechanical drill couples vibration through the skull, which is unpleasant, whereas a laser drill, you wouldn’t feel.”
Neuralink plans to work with neurosurgeons at Stanford University and other institutions to conduct early experiments. Jaimie Henderson, a professor of neurosurgery at Stanford and a specialist in the treatment of epilepsy and the use of a treatment known as Deep Brain Stimulation, is an adviser to Neuralink.
In response to Neuralink’s demonstration, independent scientists said that results from laboratory animals might not compare with human success and that human trials would be necessary in order to determine the technology’s promise. Recently, the most advanced data for animal studies was demonstrated by the Belgian company Imec and its Neuropixels technology, which has a device that can gather data from thousands of separate brains cells at once.
The Neuralink device would insert threads into the brain by a robotic system that works in the same fashion as a sewing machine. A needle would grab each thread by a small loop, and then the robot would insert it into the brain.