Neuralink has implanted its first "brain-computer interface" (BCI) chip inside a human brain, according to the company's co-founder Elon Musk. On January 29, Musk wrote on his social media platform, X, that results were "promising."
It's been eight years in the making: Since it was founded in 2016, the company has been developing a computer chip designed to be implanted into the brain, where it monitors the activity of thousands of neurons.
The chip — called Telepathy — consists of a tiny probe, containing 1,024 electrodes, attached to flexible threads thinner than a human hair. Each electrode records the electrical activity of neurons in the brain, but does not "control" neurons.
Neuralink has said it aims to help patients overcome neurological conditions such as blindness and paralysis.
However, Musk has described other ambitions for the brain chip that are reminiscent of science fiction. "The future is going to be weird,ʺ said Musk in 2020.
As well as treating health issues, Musk has said he wants to link the brain with computers to allow information and memories from deep inside the mind to be downloaded, like in the 1999 science fiction film "The Matrix."
Musk has also said he wants to provide people with "super vision" and achieve human telepathy, which he said would help humanity prevail in a war against artificial intelligence.
Sci-fi or reality?
But are any of Musk's sci-fi ideas feasible? Short answer: no.
ʺWe cannot read people's minds. The amount of information that we can decode from the brain is very limited,ʺ said Giacomo Valle, a neural engineer at the University of Chicago in the United States.
Juan Alvaro Gallego, a brain-computer interface researcher at Imperial College London, agreed, arguing it's hard to imagine BCIs reading our minds in this lifetime.
ʺThe fundamental problem is that we don't really know where or how thoughts are stored in the brain. We can't read thoughts if we don't understand the neuroscience behind them,ʺ Gallego told DW.
Clinical uses of BCIs grounded in reality
Musk first showcased the Neuralink technology in 2019, introducing a pig with a Neuralink chip implanted in its brain and showing a video of a monkey controlling the video game Pong with its mind.
But the potential for BCIs goes far beyond animals playing games.
Gallego said the technology was first developed to help people paralyzed with spinal injuries or conditions like locked-in syndrome — when a patient is fully conscious but can't move any part of the body except the eyes — to communicate.
ʺIf you [could] translate their internal communication into words on a computer, it would be life-changing,ʺ said Gallego.
In these sorts of cases, BCIs are designed to record electrical signals from neurons in the motor cortex, then send the signals to a computer where they are displayed as text.
The motor cortex isn't typically thought to be involved in thinking. Instead, it's where instructions to move are sent out to the body, like the tongue and jaw muscle movements needed for speech.