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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Musk’s Neuralink implants brain chip in its first human subject

By Kelsey Ables Washington Post

Brain chip start-up Neuralink implanted a device in its first live human subject Sunday, Elon Musk, the company’s founder, said on social media. The patient “is recovering well,” Musk wrote Monday, adding that initial data from the device was promising.

Placed in the part of the brain that plans movements, the device is designed to interpret a person’s neural activity, so they can control external devices such as a smartphone or computer with their thoughts, Neuralink’s website says. The device is currently in clinical trials, which are open to some individuals who have quadriplegia due to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or a spinal cord injury, according to a recruitment pamphlet.

Musk said Monday that the first Neuralink product will be called Telepathy and initially used by people who have lost the ability to use their limbs. “Imagine if Stephen Hawking could communicate faster than a speed typist or auctioneer,” he wrote. “That’s the goal.”

The implant marks a significant step for Neuralink, which has faced regulatory hurdles due to safety concerns, and places it among several companies – including Blackrock Neurotech and Synchron – that have tested brain implants on humans. Musk, whose business empire includes Tesla, SpaceX and X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, has been credited with reinvigorating interest in the decades-old field, known as brain-computer interface, and has hyped it up by suggesting it could be used to enhance human function more broadly.

On its website, Neuralink advertises its ambition of creating a technology to “restore autonomy to those with unmet medical needs today and unlock human potential tomorrow.”

But the company has faced obstacles that have critics skeptical of its goals. In November, four U.S. lawmakers asked the Securities and Exchange Commission to investigate if Musk misled investors about the safety of his brain implant after veterinarian records indicated experiments in monkeys resulted in “debilitating health effects,” Reuters reported.

In May, when Neuralink said it had gained approval for human trials, Ryan Merkley, director of research advocacy at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, said if Musk “cared about the health of patients, he would invest in a noninvasive brain-computer interface.”

Neuralink did not respond to a request for comment.

At least 42 people worldwide have had brain-computer implants, The Washington Post reported last year, including a paralyzed man who fist-bumped President Barack Obama with a robotic hand in 2016.

Neuralink’s approach is more invasive and high bandwidth than some of its competitors; its aim is to transfer data from the brain to the computer more rapidly. The device is sewn into the surface of the brain during a surgery conducted by a robot.

At a 2022 event, Musk imagined a future where people upgrade their brain chips. “I’m pretty sure you would not want the iPhone 1 stuck in your head if the iPhone 14 is available,” he said.

While most companies remain focused on therapeutic treatments, Musk has angled for a wider application, suggesting that the technology could be used to enhance human function more broadly. He’s spoken of putting humans on a path to “symbiosis with artificial intelligence” and suggested he would get the technology installed in his own brain someday.

Allan McCay, a fellow at the University of Sydney’s Law School who studies ethical issues related to emerging neurotechnologies, said in a phone interview that the idea of cognitive enhancement sparks concerns. “A society where some people are cognitively enhanced and others aren’t could create a class divide like nothing ever,” he said.

The rise of neurotechnologies, which also include external and recreational devices such as gaming headsets, also raises more immediate issues about how to regulate the use of brain data. Debate about these issues “needs to become more prominent,” McCay said.

But McCay also points to a number of potentially positive applications of neurotechnology, such as treatment of severe depression, epilepsy and locked-in syndrome.

“You can get a gloomy lawyer like me moaning on about the ethics, but it’s important to remember the enormous upsides,” he said. “Neurotechnology might alleviate quite a lot of human suffering.”