A Scientist and Engineer Explain Everything Elon Musk’s Neuralink Can (and Can’t) Do
Brain surgery robots, neural Fitbits, and cyborg pigs
Co-authored by Chris Chiang
In late August, more than 150,000 people tuned into a webcast to watch a live demonstration of the latest tech from brain-computer interface company Neuralink. The secretive startup, founded by entrepreneur Elon Musk, plans to use a tiny brain implant to merge humans with A.I.
Viewers were treated to one of the most fascinating and bizarre tech demos in recent memory, complete with neurosurgery robots, a live feed of spiking neurons in a living brain, and the delightful spectacle of a billionaire in a bespoke sport coat speaking furtively to a Tamworth pig while attempting to coax her onstage (“Come on, Gertrude, we have snacks!”).
Musk is a gifted showman, known for stunts like launching his personal Tesla into space and selling functioning flamethrowers to promote a tunnel-building enterprise. His theatrics, though, can make it hard to tell when he’s discussing a real technology that’s here today or an aspirational vision that’s still decades off. Neuralink is also an extremely complex company. It merges medical devices, brain surgery, robotics, neuroscience, and machine learning. That makes understanding its tech even more of a challenge.
I have a degree in cognitive science (neuroscience and linguistics) from Johns Hopkins University and a decade of experience in A.I. My friend and co-author Chris Chiang has a degree in biomedical engineering (also from Hopkins) and has spent the last eight years in the medical device field. Before Musk had even finished speaking, we connected and started delving into what Neuralink’s demo actually shows. What parts of its tech are medically useful? What changes and sacrifices has the company made since it last shared details of its device in 2019? When will we get functioning telepathy? And what does this all mean for the future of computer-connected brains?
His theatrics can make it hard to tell when he’s discussing a real technology that’s here today or an aspirational vision that’s still decades off.