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Elon Musk’s Neuralink being investigated: What does the company promise, why is the tech controversial?

Here’s all you need to know about Musk’s brain implant company Neuralink and its advancements in neuroscience.

neuralink, elon musk, neuralink image,Neuralink is expected to kick off human trials in the next six months, Elon Musk has said. (Image Source: Neuralink)
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If you have been following technology and science over the years, chances are Neuralink is a name that you have come by multiple times, especially over the past couple of years. The startup by billionaire Elon Musk aims at bringing the human brain closer to technology than it has ever been, with the use of dedicated hardware. The company is currently working on the Neuralink N1 chip, a wireless implant that goes into a subject’s head, allowing the chip to monitor the brain’s functioning, while also allowing the brain to use the chip to allow new, previously unachievable use cases. This includes everything from moving a desktop cursor to machinery with your mind, as well as allowing a superior hearing and visual aid for the impaired.

However, with the progress of the tech’s advancements, both Musk and Neuralink have come under the scanner for animal welfare violations, as well as numerous complaints from employees of unsettling pressure from CEO Musk to get results quicker, which has led to further problems. Here’s a deeper look at the problems that circle Neuralink right now, beginning with how the tech actually works.

The science behind Neuralink

Neuralink works on the principle of the brain using electric signals to function. A brain works by producing electric signals amidst a network of about 80-100 billion neurons. These signals then travel across your body in specific patterns, instructing your individual muscles to move and react to stimuli.

What a brain implant like the one Neuralink is working on does is monitor these signal patterns from your brain, allowing the chip in the implant to record and understand your movements. These signals can then be used to trigger the movements of mechanical or electronic devices, not directly in contact with your body, using Bluetooth technology.

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The Neuralink N1 chip, surgical implantation and the Neuralink app

The Neuralink N1 chip allows an electronic-neural interface to work wirelessly inside a subject’s head once implanted. The chip, not much bigger than a coin, comes with tiny wires and a circular design. It can also be charged wirelessly externally, which is quite necessary given the implant sits under your skin.

For this to work as intended, the Neuralink N1 chip needs to be surgically implanted on the subject’s skull in a very precise manner, which is why Neuralink also built a robotic system that is “designed to reliably and efficiently insert these threads exactly where the neurosurgeon wants them to be.”

Once implanted, the functioning of the chip can be controlled using a Neuralink app, which has options like iPhone control, mouse control and keyboard control, for now, all neatly laid out in a graphical user interface and powered by Bluetooth. The app also serves as a tutorial that teaches you to control these devices with your mind through exercises.

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Neuralink under scrutiny

Neuralink is currently testing the tech on animals, and amidst its advancements in the field, the company now faces a US federal probe over potential animal welfare violations. These accusations came up after Neuralink staff members claimed that animal testing is being rushed at the company, leading to “needless suffering and death” as per a report by Reuters. 

The probe was reportedly opened in recent months by the US Department of Agriculture’s Inspector General following a federal prosecutor requesting the same.  The report also comes at a time when growing employee dissent about the company’s animal testing is at large. This includes complaints by employees that increased pressure from CEO Musk has resulted in many botched experiments causing deaths among the animal subjects. Employees have also reportedly said that such failed tests have had to be repeated, increasing the number of animals being killed.

The report also states that so far, about 1,500 animals including over 280 sheep, pigs and monkeys have been killed following Neuralink experiments since 2018. US regulations, which don’t state how many animals can be used for research by a company, have also come to light due to the matter.

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It isn’t clear how many of these deaths were caused directly due to the surgical implant. Rushed schedules have reportedly led to over-stressed staffers being under-prepared, often making last-minute changes ahead of surgeries, increasing the risks of things going wrong, according to the report.

Musk’s timeline for human trials

Part of the reason behind the rush to roll out the new technology could be CEO Musk’s commitment to beginning human trials, which were originally slated for 2020. Since that didn’t happen, Musk has recently stated that Neuralink will be ready for human testing in the next six months. The company has also reportedly submitted most of its paperwork to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) which will provide the required green light for human trials. However, it remains to be seen if the company will be able to stick to the timeline following the probe.

First published on: 06-12-2022 at 16:54 IST
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