Elon Musk wants to start implanting a chip in the human brain within the next 6 months

Elon Musk wants brain chip company Neuralink to begin human trials within the next six months.

During a recent show-and-tell event, the billionaire announced that the company will try to use implants to help blind people see through cameras, help people with spinal cord injuries communicate, and even restore use of their bodies.

The Neuralink implant is a wireless chip-based system designed to be implanted in the skull, housed in a cap about the size of a quarter, where it communicates directly with the human brain via a series of tiny wires. Only a few red blood cells wide, these wires each contain 16 electrodes and are capable of tracking and stimulating signals sent from the brain.

To be implanted, a surgeon must delicately cut through the outer layer of skin and flesh before drilling out a section of the patient’s skull, and finally remove a layer of tough connective tissue—thus exposing the brain beneath the brain.

The custom-made robot, tentatively called R1, then goes to work by individually inserting ultra-thin electrode-carrying threads into precisely targeted parts of the brain. In a live demonstration during the show, it took the R1 robot just 20 minutes to install the 64 threads of the implant into a model brain.

The current “N1” device is miniaturized to match the thickness of the skull layer removed for chip implantation. This allows the technology to capture the hole where the bone once was and hide under the skin.

According to Musk, putting a Neurolink interface in your head is like replacing a piece of your skull with a smart watch. Not the best sales pitch I’ve ever heard.

While this is a scary prospect, the future benefits of connecting to such a device could be enormous. Musk’s goal is to create a whole-brain interface that could be used to dramatically improve the lives of people with medical disabilities, and in the long term, allow anyone to interact with technology using only an implant and the power of their mind.

The company has already tested its implant on a number of pigs and macaques. In 2021 Neuralink revealed that it was able to teach a monkey implanted in a device to play the arcade game Pong using nothing but signals from its brain.

A monkey named Pager was first taught to play and understand the game using a regular joystick. During this process, the implant recorded Pager’s brain signals and determined which ones were used to control the joystick and therefore move the paddle.

The joystick was then removed and the macaque was able to successfully guide the paddle with its thoughts, communicating through the implanted Neuralink technology.

Since teaching a monkey to play Pong, Neuralink has been testing and refining the technology as it prepares for human trials. According to Musk, the company has now submitted most of the necessary documents for such experiments to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is responsible for ensuring the safety and efficacy of human trials.

In this week’s show-and-tell presentation, the controversial entrepreneur reiterated his broad vision for Neuralink implants and demonstrated the progress made in their testing and development.

Musk also revealed his timeline for human trials, saying: “In about six months we will have our first Neuralink in a human.” He explained that Neuralink’s animal testing is focused on being “confirmatory, exploratory” and rigorous bench-top testing is done before implanting an animal subject.

Animal rights groups have previously criticized the company’s treatment of laboratory animals. According to CNN, the US non-profit group – Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine – has called for an investigation into the company’s practices, citing “gross violations of the Animal Welfare Act regarding the treatment of monkeys used in invasive brain experiments.”

“We believe that a person with no other interface to the outside world can operate their phone better than someone with a working hand.”

The company is now working with a troupe of six monkeys and has already developed a chip implanted in the skull of Pager, the macaque. After the Pong experiments, the monkeys were encouraged to perform a series of tasks designed to test the interface, with the new hardware significantly increasing the speed at which they could interact with the technology using a mind-controlled curser.

One such test was demonstrated during the event, with a monkey instructing a curser to move to a highlighted key to type the words “you’re welcome to show and tell” on a virtual keyboard.

The display is designed to demonstrate the potential benefits technology can bring by allowing people with disabilities to quickly communicate using a mouse cursor or phone without having to interact with a physical device.

“We believe that a person with no other interface to the outside world can operate their phone better than someone with a working hand,” Musk said.

The company is also looking to future-proof the Neuralink implant, allowing surgeons to easily upgrade the devices when a newer model becomes available. However, there are currently significant challenges to overcome – many of which are the result of our body’s effective healing capabilities – if ever.

“Our goal will be to turn on the lights for someone who has lived in the dark for decades.”

Musk has already set two ambitious short- and medium-term goals for the FDA to approve human trials of Neuralink implants. The first is to restore sight to patients suffering from blindness.

“Even if someone never had sight, like if they were born blind, we still believe we can restore sight,” Musk said. “The visual part of the cortex is still there.”

This is theoretically possible because of the implant’s ability to stimulate the brain, explains visual neuroscientist Dan Adams, Neurolink’s principal investigator.

If connected to the visual cortex, stimulation from the wires can be used to bypass the human eye and create an image directly in the brain. This technique can be scaled with more electrodes – and therefore stimuli – allowing higher resolution images to be projected into the brain.

Scientists envision a future where data from a camera can be transmitted to an implant, which in turn will stimulate the right cells in the visual cortex to create a simplified version of the image in the human brain.

“Our goal will be to turn on the lights for someone who has spent decades in the dark,” Adams explained.