Elon Musk’s Neuralink Event puts a pig in the spotlight

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I once encountered a young boy in our estate who had a strong letch for staying indoors. At first, we just thought it was because he preferred binge watching “Looney Tunes” and “Courage” to playing outside under the warm gaze of the sun but as it turned out, he did not watch TV at all.

Those who visited him made a point of telling everyone who would listen about how exceptionally drab the boy’s room was. He was an enigma wrapped in a mystery, a feared fascination amidst his age mates.

One time his aunt visited and all pandemonium broke loose. She dragged him outside despite the boy’s much protests claiming that it was unhealthy for a young boy to stay cooped up all day in a confined space. All the yelling and screaming had us scrambling towards their house. By the time we reached their compound, the boy had curled himself into a humanoid ball on the ground. The sound of an airplane averted the kids’ attentions and suddenly everyone was shrieking; jaded by the “huge bird” that was so strong it could carry more than fifty adults. I never tore my eyes from the boy, I had never seen someone so scared of sound. It was as if the reverberating noise from the airplane was unnatural to him, prompting him to curl into a fetal position. He was trembling like a leaf caught in a blizzard, he never stopped screaming. His aunt finally managed to get him back into the house. We found out much later that what was normal to us, was chaotic for him; he was born with heightened sensory organs which consequently amplified his surroundings.

By then I was too young to understand that the boy was suffering from a neural disorder known as autism spectrum but even then, I felt sorry for him. He would have to glide through life without appreciating the blend of natural and artificial sound or colours for that matter.

Earlier this year Elon Musk said that he would be revealing the latest developments from Neuralink, a company that he started in 2017 with the aim of achieving a symbiotic relationship between humans and computers. He never specified a date but he did give us the month. True to his word, on 25th August, Elon Musk announced on Twitter that there would be an event held by Neuralink on 28th August. In this event, Musk was to show the world what Neuralink has been doing the past year and when the human trials would begin. This announcement was a cause of buzz globally considering the BCI (Brain Computer Interface) device is meant to do extraordinary things including being able to cure diseases stemming from the brain and allowing humans to successfully communicate with computers.

It was therefore no surprise when a colossal of people turned up for the event (virtually of course) with the intention of witnessing neurons firing as promised by Elon Musk. The process was clearly meant to be shown through a test subject and many people went as far as speculating that the guinea pig conducting this neural experiment would be human. Well, that’s not quite what Elon Musk and his team had in mind.

Let’s see what transpired during this event and whether humankind is indeed going to be in sync with Artificial Intelligence soon.
Neuralink Event

As I mentioned earlier, Neuralink was started with the aim of creating a leeway via which humans could communicate with their computers. This is to be achieved through a device with a plethora of tiny, flexible wires which are covered in electrodes meant to be implanted on the human skull so that these thin wires can be inserted into the human brain. All this is to be done by a robot with a very unique skill of conducting brain surgery.

Gertrude, a heavy boned pig who seemed to relish the spotlight, was used to showcase the company’s developed device during the livestream video on YouTube. She had the device outfitted in her, recording signals from an area in the brain linked to her snout. It was revealed to the audience that Gertrude had had this implant for two months already dating to the day of the demonstration. The audience watched intently as Gertrude’s snout moved on to touch things around its environment and as it did an array of dots and a series of noises indicated when more neurons were firing. Apparently, pigs have large parts of their brains devoted to their snouts which are very sensitive when it comes to sensing things in their environment.

It was quite hard to spot the device on Gertrude as the device has immensely changed since we last saw it. The model morphed from being a small module resting near the ear to a small coin-shaped device meant to sit on the skull itself. Musk went on to describe the newly improved model device as “a Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires.” A Fitbit device is essentially an activity tracker which is usually worn on the wrist to track varied activities like the number of calories you burn and take in or the distance you cover during your walks and runs. So yes, a Fitbit device sitting pretty on your skill, a bit disturbing huh? Musk also revealed during the event that the Neuralink device has the capability of pairing with a smartphone app over Bluetooth Low Energy. Worth the whole idea of having a Fitbit-like device sitting on your brain I suppose.

As of now, the device is constrained to the surface of the brain, it doesn’t burrow into deeper regions. In last year’s event Musk said that the implant process for the device will be simple and safe just like Lasik eye surgery. During this year’s event, he claimed that the whole process could be done during a single hour without the use of anesthesia. This is a phenomenal breakthrough.

When a similar event was held last year, Musk confessed that the main reason for showcasing a demonstration was to recruit a number of employees. So far, Neuralink employs 100 people and during the event, Musk said he is looking to employ more than 10,000 people. He said that he is looking to employ robotics, electrical and software engineers to work on the BCI device and the refinement of the surgical process during the device implementation in human brains. Working for the reportedly forth richest man in the world doesn’t sound half as bad. It is an opportunity for people without jobs and skills in these fields to get work that could set them up for a lifetime. So why is it that ever since the company lifted off the ground in 2017 there have been a lot of employee turnovers? In fact, only two members of the founding team still work at Neuralink to date.

The shortcomings of Neuralink’s revolutionary device

Stat news received some information pertaining the frequent employee turnovers in Neuralink during the past three years. Former employees came forward claiming that the environment in Neuralink was chaotic and that researchers were incessantly under a lot of pressure to rush through assigned projects. Scientists working in the company would be given absurd deadlines; projects that should have lasted for months were meant to last for only a few weeks.

Now, we know about the puny and pliable threads and how they have more electrodes than other systems which consequently helps in mustering more information at a go. Their presence in the brain is predicted not to cause as much damage as stiff needles. This, however, does not guarantee their long-term viability as foreign objects in the brain tend to degrade over time and considering the size of these threads, they are bound to degrade even faster.

During the event, a member of the Neuralink team confessed that the main challenge for them was devising a way that would ensure the device could last for decades in an easily degrading environment like the brain.

Elon Musk said that the device was bound to burrow a hole in people’s pockets at the beginning of its use but he promised that he would work towards ensuring that the device would be relatively affordable pretty much like Lasik eye surgery.

The beginning of human trials

This device has not been tested in humans yet. Despite this, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has designated it as a breakthrough device. Neuralink has therefore established a program where they will be allowed to get feedback from the agency throughout the development process. This information was revealed by Musk during the event.

The first clinical trials will be in a small number of patients with severe spinal cord injuries. This will make sure that the device is actually feasible and safe. Musk has been hinting at human trials since last year and this year they were scheduled to begin.

In the long run, Musk said during the event that they will be able to restore full motion in people with those types of injuries by using a second implant on the spine.

It is our hope that a breakthrough occurs during the human trials. Imagine a cure for kids with autism or people with Parkinson’s disease.

Say, how long do you think it will take Neuralink to successfully establish a symbiotic relationship between humans and computers?

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