Neuralink, a company founded by Musk that is developing artificial-intelligence-powered microchips to go in people’s brains, released a video Thursday appearing to show a macaque using the tech to play video games, including “Pong.”
Musk has boasted about Neuralink’s tests on primates before, but this is the first time the company has put one on display. During a presentation in 2019, Musk said the company had enabled a monkey to “control a computer with its brain.”
In August 2020 the company did a live demonstration of the technology in a pig named Gertrude.
Neuralink says the monkey, named Pager, had a chip implanted in his brain six weeks ago. In the video, he was given a joystick that was hooked up to a video game in which he moves a cursor to a colored square. When he successfully moves the cursor, he’s given some banana smoothie through a tube.
While Pager uses the joystick, the Neuralink chip records his brain activity and sends it back to a computer for analysis of what his brain does when he moves his hand. The joystick is then unplugged from the machine, but the monkey continues to control the game, with brain signals being relayed by the Neuralink chips.
Theoretically, the same tech could be used to give people control of synthetic limbs via a Neuralink brain implant. In a tweet Thursday, Musk said the first Neuralink product would let people with paralysis control a smartphone.
Andrew Jackson, a neuroscience expert who is a professor at Newcastle University, told Insider that getting primates to control video games via neural interfaces was not new — comparable demonstrations were done in 2002 — but said it was a good test of the tech.
“If you invent a new telescope, it makes sense to first point it where you know what you will see,” he said. “So they are following a very sensible route to validate their device. I am sure this device will contribute to new scientific discoveries in future (especially if they make it widely available to scientists), as well as improving the usability of existing neural interface technologies for people with paralysis.”
Jackson added that the engineering of the device, being implanted wirelessly in Pager’s skull, was a significant advance.
“What is definitely new and innovative is that there are no cables coming through the skin, and the brain signals are all being sent wirelessly,” Jackson said. “This to me is the advance here, and is important both for improving the safety of human applications (wires through the skin are a potential route for infection) and also as a way of improving the welfare of animals used in neuroscience studies. The Neuralink team has definitely made progress in this regard.”
Rylie Green, a bioengineering researcher at Imperial College London, also praised Pager’s apparent welfare. “The best thing I can see from that video is that the macaque is freely moving,” she said. “There’s also no visible package connected to it. I would say that is definitely progress — not super innovative but a nice positive step forward.”