Neuralink is a neurotechnology company founded by Elon Musk and several others in 2016. Its focus on developing implantable brain–machine interfaces has already created ripples around the scientific community. Further to the recent release of a video showing a monkey playing a video game with its mind, the potential of its technology has now piqued everyone’s interest. To find out more about the company and its intriguing work, read on for twenty things you didn’t know about Neuralink.
1. It was founded in 2016
Neuralink was conceived in 2016 by Elon Musk and eight partners. According to Wikipedia, these partners included Max Hodak, who’d previously developed brain-computer interfaces at Duke University; Matthew MacDougall, a neurosurgeon at California Pacific Medical Center; Vanessa Tolosa, who’d previously led a neurotechnology team at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; DJ Seo, one of the inventors of neural dust; Philip Sabes, a professor of physiology at UC San Francisco; Tim Gardner, a professor of biology at Boston University who pioneered the implementation of brain-computer interfaces in birds; Ben Rapoport, a neurosurgeon; and Tim Hanson, a scientist at UCSF and UC Berkeley.
2. Only three founding members remain
In 2016, Neuralink had 8 founding scientists. By 2020, only three of these still worked at the company. The break-up was far from amicable. According to Stat News, the preceding years had been fought with “internal conflict in which rushed timelines have clashed with the slow and incremental pace of science.” Several former employees described a chaotic rush to complete projects and equally rushed decisions to kill them. A few also discussed the need for the company to scale back its sweeping ambitions in order to make progress in simpler, more focused areas.
3. It bought its name
Neuralink may be happy enough to develop original technology, but thinking up a name of its own was apparently too big of an ask. As MIT Technology Review writes, the name was actually bought from Pedram Mohseni, a professor at Case Western Reserve University, and his research partner, Randolph Nudo of Kansas University Medical Center. The pair had acquired the trademark on “NeuraLink” in 2015 after launching a startup company focused on developing a device to help people with brain injuries. The start-up failed to launch, and when a stranger approached them offering tens of thousands of dollars for the name, they were happy enough to accept. What they didn’t realize at the time was that the stranger was none other than Elon Musk. While Musk has never commented on why he wanted the name enough to pay for it, Mohseni believes he knows the reason. “The name Neuralink really nicely captures what is happening in the field of neuromodulation,” he says.
4. It aimed to prevent an AI apocalypse
When Neuralink first launched, Musk claimed it was with the intention of cutting the risk of runaway AI. Neuralink’s purpose, he said, was to boost the human brain and give us more ‘bandwidth’ so we could stand shoulder to shoulder with advanced technologies. Since then, the basic mission statement has changed slightly, and Neuralink now focuses as much on helping those with brain-related disorders and other medical conditions as it does on letting us keep up with AI.
5. It’s changed its focus
Neuralink may have started off with an ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ approach to AI, but it’s since widened its remit to focus primarily on using its technology to help people with neurological disorders that stop the brain from connecting with nerves around the body. This includes those with epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease, along with paraplegics and quadriplegics.
6. Its technology could help people with prosthetics
It’s not just neurological conditions that Neuralink’s technology could help. Potentially, it could also be used with other forms of advanced technology to allow people to control artificial limbs or other prosthetics remotely through the power of thought.
7. It’s delving into sci-fi territory
For now, Neuralink’s technology is still in the developmental stage. It’s yet to be seen if it will achieve its objective of helping those with neurological disorders communicate with technology remotely. And yet already, the potential for its wider applications is hard to ignore. Should it prove successful, it raises questions of whether it will become possible for people to transmit their thoughts directly into someone else’s brain, or even whether it can be used to enhance cognitive capabilities like intelligence and memory. As CNBC writes, Musk has made no secret of his belief that Neuralink could allow people to communicate using telepathy or even exist in a “saved state” after they die…. although he did concede that such claims were delving into sci-fi territory.
8. It’s developed a robot
Past studies involving the implantation of probes into the brain have shown that it doesn’t take the body long to recognize the probes as a foreign object and take steps to reject them. To get around the problem, Neuralink has built a robot that can insert up to six flexible probes per minute, thereby reducing trauma and minimizing the risk of rejection.
9. It spent three years in stealth mode
Neuralink may have been created in 2016, but for the first three years of its life, it was shrouded in mystery. In 2019, it finally decided to come out of stealth mode during a presentation at the California Academy of Sciences. During the presentation, its founders revealed the technology behind their work, along with a prototype of the neurosurgical robot they’d built to perform operations. Speaking of the decision to go public, Max Hodak, Neuralink’s president, said “We want this burden of stealth mode off of us so that we can keep building and do things like normal people, such as publish papers.”
10. Pigs rule the roost
While most scientific research is conducted on primates, the majority of Neuralink’s research has been conducted on pigs. Back in 2020, the company released a demo of three pigs to showcase its technology. As popularmechanics.com reports, the pigs included Joyce, a pig with no implant; Gertrude, who had a Neuralink implant currently in her brain; and Dorothy, a pig that had previously had an implant in her brain that had since been removed. During the demo, Gertrude’s brain activity was displayed on a screen – the beeps, which can be heard throughout, are described by Musk as arising from the neural spikes in Gertrude’s brain generated by the stimulus in her environment.
11. It’s drawn the wrath of PETA
Although Neuralink hasn’t confirmed why it prefers pigs over primates when it comes to research, some people have suggested it’s to avoid the risk of an ethics lawsuit. In general, animal rights activists are more likely to go after a company that uses monkeys and other primates in its research than any other animal. Even so, that hasn’t stopped organizations like PETA blasting Neuralink for its treatment of animals. Speaking to the BBC, Dr. Katy Taylor, director of science and regulatory affairs at Cruelty Free International, summed up the concerns of animal welfare activists with the comment: “It beggars belief that animals are being used in this type of grotesque curiosity-driven experiment. In fact, 57% of experiments in universities are now believed to be in the area of basic research, much of it driven by nothing more than curiosity and certainly not required by law.”
12. The reception has been mixed
4 years after its foundation, the jury is still out on the value of Neuralink’s research. Musk’s habit of making bold claims (including the idea that Neuralink could create a Fitbit for the brain that could cure a host of neurological disorders and even paralysis) have drawn scorn from many parts of the scientific community, with MIT Technology Review dismissing the claims as “highly speculative” and “neuroscience theater.” Others have been tentatively optimistic, saying that while the technology doesn’t yet seem advanced enough to achieve efficacious results, it will be exciting to see what developments are made.
13. It’s taught a monkey to play video games
This April, Musk gave an interview in which he claimed Neuralink had created the technology to allow a monkey to play a video game with its mind. Shortly after, he released a video showing exactly that. The money, named Pager, was first taught to play the game with a joystick. While it played, the Neuralink device implanted in its brain recorded information about which neurons were working to control each movement. The joystick was then removed and the monkey appeared to continue playing the game with its mind. It’s hoped that the same interface will one day allow people with brain disorders to control technology remotely.
14. It’s looking for new employees
With just three of its eight founding scientists remaining, the HR department of Neuralink clearly has a big task in front of them. So in need of fresh blood has the company (which is reported to employ around 100 staff) become, Musk took the opportunity of a recent live streaming YouTube event to try and entice people to apply. “If somebody listening is good at designing Fitbit, Apple Watches, phones, computers of various kinds, then, actually, they would be a great fit for Neuralink,” he said.
15, There’s still a long way to go
Even critics with ethical concerns about its potential applications can’t deny that Neuralink’s technology is fascinating stuff. But it’s still a long, long way from being achieved just yet. As brain-computer interfaces are technically medical devices, Neuralink would need to get authorization from channels such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration before it could begin testing its implants on human subjects. To get this, it would need to show the safety and efficiency of its products through a long, meticulous testing process… something that may involve decades, rather than just years.
16. It’s got rivals
As MSN notes, while the scale, funding, intent, and charismatic backing of Elon Musk might make Neuralink newsworthy, it’s far from the only company working on this kind of technology. Facebook, for example, has recently purchased neural interface startup Ctrl-labs; Kernel, a 100 million-dollar project created by Braintree founder Bryan Johnson, has already made significant progress in the area; and the U.S. government has contributed $65 million to DARPA’s efforts in the field. Whether (and how) Neuralink manages to distinguish itself from its increasing number of rivals remains to be seen.
17. It’s raised $158 million
Since its launch, Neuralink has raised a significant $158 million in investment over two funding rounds. According to crunchbase.com, the latest round was held on Apr 29, 2019. Interestingly (although perhaps not surprisingly considering his mammoth net worth), Musk is listed as the sole investor.
18. Iain M. Banks was an inspration
Inspiration can sometimes come from the strangest of places. While you wouldn’t necessarily expect a company focused on such serious work to have taken its inspiration from a piece of fiction, that’s exactly the case here. According to Musk, his idea for launching Neuralink came at least in part from the idea of ‘neutral lace’ presented in Iain M. Banks’ series of 10 novels, “The Culture.”
19. Musk is making some bold claims…
Elon Musk isn’t exactly shy about making bold statements. Ever since Neuralink launched, he’s been talking it up with some extravagant claims. As well as saying the technology could one day be used to place people into a ‘saved’ state after death (with the goal that they would then be ‘rebooted’ into another human or robot), he’s also boasted that the “first Neuralink product will enable someone with paralysis to use a smartphone with their mind faster than someone using thumbs” and that the next stage would then be “enabling, for example, paraplegics to walk again”.
20. … And he’s not the only one
Musk isn’t the only one at Neuralink with ambitious goals. According to a tweet posted by co-founder Max Hodak, Neuralink “could probably build Jurassic Park if we wanted to.” To ward off any panic about T-Rex’s in Times Square, he quickly added that they wouldn’t create “genetically authentic dinosaurs” and would require at least 15 more years to build the technology needed to create an exotic new species.