It took a little longer than promised, but Elon Musk confirmed this Monday that a chip was implanted in the brain of a person by his company. “He is recovering well,” the businessman said as he announced the news on social network X. “The initial results show promising detection of neuronal electrical impulses,” he adds. The surgical procedure was carried out by Neuralink, one of the companies owned by Musk, which was monitored by authorities for several months after the deaths of several monkeys during the experimental phase of these chips. At this time, neither the age nor the identity of the patient is known.
Musk has made technological and scientific advances seem like a marketing milestone. “Neuralink’s first product is called Telepathy,” said the businessman. This is to mind control the phone and computer of the patient who received the implant. “The first users will be those who no longer have the use of their limbs. Imagine if Stephen Hawking communicated faster than a stenographer or an auctioneer. That is the goal,” reported the entrepreneur. It is not the first time that a brain implant has been performed, as neurotechnology in this field has been advancing for years.
The company began recruiting patients for the six-year experiments in September. The patients would be part of PRIME, a program that summarizes the company's goals of precisely implanting a chip (Precise Robotically Implanted Brain Computer Interface) into the brain. In its first major presentation to the public, the company assured that the “cosmetically invisible” implant would allow control of a cursor or keyboard “by thought alone.” The search for patients began at the same time as the complaint from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine became known, which, together with journalistic research, warned of the deaths of a dozen monkeys in the Neuralink experiments.
Neuralink's goal was to focus on quadriplegics with spinal injuries or people who have had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) for at least a year. Those selected had to be over 22 years old and have a nurse or security guard at all times. They would be rewarded with financial support for travel to the sites where clinical testing would be conducted over the 18 months of the first phase. The big reward, however, would be a radical change in their lives, brought about by a chip implanted in the part of the brain that controls movement intention. The semiconductor records neuronal activity via 1,024 electrodes spread across 64 wires, each thinner than a human hair.
Neuralink received the green light to perform the procedure on humans from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in May 2023. Achieving FDA approval was an essential prerequisite for the historic move Musk announced this afternoon. The health authorities had rejected the first application from 2022 and expressed certain doubts about the safety of the lithium battery contained in the semiconductor, the size of a 25 cent coin. At that time, the authority's experts also wanted to know whether the cables coming from the brain could disrupt or damage other areas in the skull.
The team at Neuralink, a company founded in 2016, corrected the FDA's observations in record time and contrary to the opinion of experts who were skeptical of the procedure. “Neuralink doesn’t seem to have the experience or mentality to bring this to market soon,” a neuroengineer told the British agency Portal in March last year. The company struggled to beat its competitor Paradromics, an Austin, Texas-based company that had developed similar technology that allows paralyzed patients to regain some abilities.
In 2021, the company released a video of a monkey playing Pong, the Atari console video game that mimics the dynamics of table tennis. The primate's images became a viral sensation, viewed more than six million times. For the first time, the company was able to clearly communicate how its implant could revolutionize the future. The novelty was not that the primate called Pager interacted with the game, but that he did so by controlling the controller with his brain, having been implanted with two chips six months earlier. Elon Musk announced in late 2022 that Neuralink would begin human testing in mid-2023. Today they are a reality, says the controversial disruptor.
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