Musk announces brain implant in human. Should we be worried?

Elon Musk says the first human has received a brain implant from company Neuralink.

Musk was among the team of scientists and engineers who founded Neuralink, a company which aims to create a brain-computer interface via an implant onto the skull.

The focus of the current study is to allow participants to control a cursor or keyboard using their thoughts.

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine – a not-for-profit group of 17,000 medical professionals – issued a statement noting the Neuralink developments had not been independently verified, and noting Musk’s “long track record of misleading the public about Neuralink’s supposed developments”.

“Without more information, it’s impossible to know if Neuralink has achieved anything,” says Ryan Merkley, director of research advocacy at the Physicians Committee. “But we do know that Neuralink has a troubling history of sloppy science and illegal activity.”

The Physicians Committee was established in 1985 and advocates for ethical scientific research. In 2022, the group released internal records from the University of California Davis documenting what it calls Neuralink’s “painful, deadly experiments on monkeys between 2017 and 2020”.

Monash University’s Professor Robert Sparrow is a philosopher specialising in the ethics of science and technology. He tells Cosmos that Neuralink is far from the only company pursuing these sorts of brain-computer interfaces.

“There’s a long history of people trying to allow direct communication between the nervous system and computers,” he says. 

Sparrow adds the difference with Neurolink as a company is its close association with Musk who is “openly trans-humanist”. 

“They don’t see this just as a new way of controlling prosthetics, or for people who have severe paralysis to communicate; but they imagine a future where people are flying fighter jets or controlling science fiction robots through their thoughts.”

He says: “That’s massively speculative. We’re nowhere near that. And if it were possible, it would raise a myriad of ethical and political questions.”

But apart from the sci-fi appeal, Sparrow suggests it’s unlikely the implants currently being developed would have much uptake in the general population. 

“Most people are not going to have brain surgery in order to be able to use their mobile phones,” he says.

In other applications, implants and devices have often experienced degradation in function over time due to the body’s response.

Then there’s issues with maintenance, upkeep and support. 

Sparrow lists just some of the concerns that can arise as being similar to challenges that already exist for products that aren’t embedded in humans.

“They go out of date, the company that manufactures them ceases to do so, you can’t find replacement parts, the state of the art of the technology changes, your device can no longer communicate with other devices because they’re all running some new operating system,” Sparrow says.

Meanwhile, the Physicians Committee says: “We know that Musk could help a great number of patients if he would instead develop a non-invasive brain-computer interface”. 

According to Musk, the implanted patient is recovering well.

The social media post follows approval from the US Food and Drug Administration last year for Neuralink to commence human trials. The company began recruitment for participants in September. 

The first study – expected to take 6 years – will evaluate the safety of the brain implant and the use of a surgical robot.

A company announcement says the implanted coin-shaped device (which it calls an N1 Implant) has 64 ultrafine threads connected to the region of the brain controlling movement. An app will decode the signals from the implant. Neuralink was contacted for comment.

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