Bloomberg Businessweek (November 13, 2023)
Год выпуска: November 13, 2023
Автор: Bloomberg Businessweek
Издательство: «Bloomberg Businessweek»
Формат: PDF (журнал на английском языке)
Количество страниц: 68
Elon Musk wants to put this inside your head
The world’s richest person, boldest entrepreneur and most controversial CEO is moving forward with his grand ambitions for neural implants. Is he the one we want messing with our heads?
Elon Musk is preparing for the most consequential launch of his career. But this one isn’t rocket science—it’s brain surgery. Musk’s company Neuralink Corp. is seeking a volunteer for its first clinical trial, meaning it’s looking for someone willing to have a chunk of their skull removed by a surgeon so a large robot can insert a series of electrodes and superthin wires into their brain. When the robot finishes, the missing piece of skull will have been replaced with a computer the size of a quarter that’s meant to stay there for years. Its job will be to read and analyze the person’s brain activity, then relay that information wirelessly to a nearby laptop or tablet.
For the purposes of the trial, an ideal candidate would be an adult under age 40 whose four limbs are paralyzed. Such a patient would likely have Neuralink’s implant inserted into what’s known as the hand knob area of their premotor cortex, which governs the hands, wrists and forearms. The goal is to show that the device can safely collect useful data from that part of the patient’s brain, a key step in Neuralink’s efforts to convert a person’s thoughts into a range of commands a computer can understand.
Several companies and research teams have already created implants that can help patients perform basic tasks with their thoughts, such as clicking objects on a screen with a cursor. Neuralink, in familiar Musk fashion, has issued far wilder promises. For the past four years, starting with the company’s first public demonstration, he has made it sound as if there would soon be ubiquitous clinics where anyone could go in for a 15-minute robosurgery and come out a human-machine hybrid. These cyborgs would be able to download knowledge the way Keanu Reeves does in The Matrix or upload their thoughts into storage, even to other brains. “This is going to sound pretty weird, but ultimately we will achieve symbiosis with artificial intelligence,” Musk said at that first demo in 2019, when the company said human trials could begin in 2020.
Unrealistic timetables are one of Musk’s favorite management techniques. To his credit, he’s made several improbable dreams come true—eventually. But while rockets and cars are serious business, neural implants require perfection on a whole other level. One does not rush a brain implant to market and hope for the best.
Two other companies, Synchron and Onward, have more than a year’s head start on human trials with brain implants and related technology. Neuralink has, however, gotten dramatically more attention than the decades of incremental, largely academic research that preceded it, and not always to its credit. Some neuroscientists have said Neuralink is hyping the technology. Animal-rights groups have accused it of cruelty to the monkeys, pigs and other mammals it’s tested implants on so far. The through-line is Musk, whose increasingly manic and reactionary online persona has done little to suggest he stands as the ideal candidate to mass-produce mind-control devices.
All these concerns are valid. Yet Neuralink’s trial is exciting, too. The company appears to have turbocharged progress in this slow-and-steady field, and it’s now built the world’s most powerful and elegant brain implant. If the product works as intended, later iterations could improve, in miraculous ways, the life of millions of people suffering from paralysis, stroke, Lou Gehrig’s disease, and hearing and vision loss. In the meantime, its high profile already has investors hunting for the next Neuralink. Once again, Musk has reshaped an entire industry, and this one could be the most transformative of all.
In the past three years, I’ve made 10 trips to Neuralink’s facilities in Silicon Valley and its growing operations in Austin. In tandem with Musk’s impatient demands, I’ve seen his team profoundly advance their technology and ambitions. As they prepare for the trial, the pressure to succeed is something even Musk hasn’t seen before. Tesla Inc., after all, took many years to mass-produce its cars, and SpaceX’s first three rockets exploded. When it comes to brains, “We can’t blow up the first three,” says Shivon Zilis, Neuralink’s director of special projects. “That’s not an option here.”
he modern history of brain implants began with the technological advances of the 1990s. The science, simplifying tremendously: Thoughts cause neurons to fire in particular patterns, and these patterns have some degree of consistency across brains. In fact, roughly the same neurons fire when a person thinks about moving their arms and fingers, whether they can physically move them or not. Brains light up in similar, consistent ways when people want to move a mouse cursor to click somewhere on a computer screen, too. The same is true for speech: If you can think of saying a letter or word, you’re making the same neurons fire as you would by physically speaking it. Even if you can’t speak then, a well-trained computer should be able to discern your intent and, theoretically, speak for you.
The challenge is figuring out each entry in the neurons-to-English dictionary, which requires gathering and studying tons of data about the patterns of many people’s brain signals. To get the clearest signals, you want to place sensors as close to the neurons as possible. Some researchers have tried to avoid surgery by keeping their devices outside a person’s skull, but the added distance and interference have yielded muted results. The most precise data usually comes from electrodes sitting right beside brain cells.
For most of the past 20 years, the Utah array has been the implant to beat. It’s a tiny, flat square of silicon that could fit atop a child’s fingernail. Wires protrude from its edge, and on one face of the chip is a bed of about 100 rigid spikes. To implant the Utah array, a surgeon must perform a craniotomy, cutting a large hole in the patient’s skull, then gently hammer the tiny spikes into the brain. The wires are positioned to connect to a metal port that visibly pokes out of the scalp after the opening is sutured shut. Post-op, to use the device, an ice-cube-size computer is attached to the patient’s head.
Researchers have made major advances with Utah arrays. They use them to read and translate the brain activity of people with paralysis and other conditions. Software created with this information allows patients to communicate with caregivers and loved ones, or to manipulate robotic arms to pick up objects. The catch is the hardware’s clunky design, which has remained largely unchanged over 20 years. The arrays also need a raft of computers and other equipment operated by trained personnel and lots of medical care, which has kept them confined mostly to research labs.
Musk co-founded Neuralink in 2016 with seven scientists and $100 million of his own money. The splashiness of his investment, and his grand promises about the underpinnings of the technology, proved irresistible to venture capitalists. Neuralink has since raised more than $500 million, including $280 million this year, and the attention has helped draw investors to other brain-computer interface efforts, including long-standing university projects as well as newer startups. Last year, 37 such companies raised more than $560 million, according to the research company PitchBook.
Most of these enterprises have the same primary objective: Build a brain-scanning device that can leave the lab behind. The ideal implant will have plenty of computing oomph to record and input lots of data and also to transmit the data via strong wireless signals. This must all be done while using as little battery power as possible and without running too hot, which could irritate or injure a patient. Beyond the hardware, the brain-computer interface companies also need serious machine-learning software skills and to perform thousands upon thousands of tests.
Neuralink’s implant sits invisibly beneath the scalp, flush with the skull. It’s also packed with enough computing horsepower to handle jobs well beyond think-and-click. In the nearish future, the idea is to enable high-speed typing as well as seamless use of a cursor. Neuralink has also been working on a complementary spinal implant intended to restore movement and sensation in paralyzed people. “The short-term goal of the company is to build a generalized brain interface and restore autonomy to those with debil itating neurological conditions and unmet medical needs,” says DJ Seo, a Neuralink co-founder and vice president for engineering. “Then, really, the long-term goal is to have this available for billions of people and unlock human potential and go beyond our biological capabilities.”
Although some competitors have beaten Neuralink to human trials, the company’s raw technology is closest to being a general-purpose computer in the brain. The implant has more than 1,000 electrodes for gathering brain data, compared with 16 or so in rival devices. The Neuralink hardware is a nesting doll of processing, communications and charging systems, including a battery and signal amplification. Competitors, meanwhile, must still connect their implants via wires to bulky pacemaker-size battery and amplifier units that are often surgically implanted in a patient’s chest. Neuralink’s battery lasts a few hours and can be recharged wirelessly in a couple of hours via a custom baseball cap.
Another favorite Musk move is bringing key manufacturing in-house, which adds financial risk, obviously, but saves time. Neuralink even makes its own semiconductors, an exceedingly rare step in the medical-device business. It tailors them specifically for its low-power, low-heat needs. In Austin it’s turned a former ax-throwing bar into a 12,000-square-foot implant manufacturing line and testing center. Along with the usual mills, lathes and laser cutters, the shop includes more outlandish equipment, such as a refrigerator-size cabinet— filled with a type of synthetic brain fluid—that heats, cools and jostles implants to simulate years of wear and tear.
The priority during the surgery is to avoid creating any bleeding or scar tissue in a patient’s brain. To that end, Neuralink also built its own surgical robot. It’s a hulking, 7-foot-tall white machine with a steady, cubed base supporting a tower of electronics and equipment.
Once a human surgeon cuts a hole in a patient’s skull, the robot performs the ultra-delicate task of placing the electrode-laced wires, which Neuralink calls threads, into the brain. The robot has cameras, sensors and a tiny lasermilled needle that it hooks into a loop at the end of each thread. One by one, the needle pushes the 64 threads, each lined with 16 electrodes, into the brain, all while carefully dodging blood vessels. No human would be allowed to try this given that each thread is 5 microns thick, or about 1/14 the diameter of a strand of human hair. To further avoid damaging tissue, the threads have been engineered to be a mix of thin, pliable and sturdy and coated with a special polymer to keep them from deteriorating over years.
Neuralink’s dozen or so robots performed 155 of these surgeries on sheep, pigs and monkeys in 2021 and 294 last year. With human subjects, the surgical prep and craniectomy are expected to take a couple of hours, followed by about 25 minutes for the actual implantation. “The last two years have been all about focus on building a human-ready product,” Seo says. “It’s time to help an actual human being.”
During one of my visits, Musk pushed Seo and the rest of the engineers to do more, and faster. He wanted the robot to perform the surgery in less time and ideally without the help of a human surgeon. He wanted semiconductor experts to forget what they learned in school and try out simpler manufacturing techniques. He wanted the implant to look sleeker and last longer and, well, maybe everyone needed to rethink just about everything. I saw scientists wince as they considered the distance between their boss’s demands and the physical capabilities of their hardware. But I also saw Musk perform a type of pattern-matching for which he was especially suited, thinking ahead to how a range of design tweaks would affect...
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