The Social Dilemma
This article was written by Zanelle Awinyo, Year 12
Neuralink is a neurotechnology company founded by Elon Musk that is currently building an implantable, brain-computer interface capable of translating thought into action. The venture claims its brain chip will allow people with paraplegia to regain movement and restore vision to those born blind. With human trials already underway, what lies ahead for technology in medicine?
The facts as they appear on paper.
Elon Musk’s Brain Chip, The Neuralink, aims to help patients with conditions such as paralysis regain their ability to communicate with the world through the use of external technologies controlled using neural signals.
The groundbreaking technology behind the Neuralink is part of the emerging brain-computer interface (BCI) industry.
BCIs decipher brain signals and translate them into commands for external technologies.
Scientists have been studying BCIs for decades and several companies have developed promising systems that they hope to bring to the public market. However, receiving approval for commercial medical devices has always been a struggle with companies since they are required to successfully conduct several rounds of testing and data safety collection.
On May 26, 2023– The Neuralink received approval from the US Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) to conduct its first tests on humans. Around September 2023, Clinical trials had officially begun with Neuralink recruiting its first patients for their Precise Robotically IMplanted Brain-Computer InterfacE (PRIME) study.
The PRIME study aims to evaluate the safety and initial effectiveness of the N1 (Neuralink), the R1 (surgical robot), and the N1 User App– which is the software that will enable individuals with paralysis to control external devices.
In the study, the R1 Robot will be used to surgically implant the Neuralink in a region of the brain that controls movement intention. Participants will then be asked to use the Neuralink and N1 User App to control a computer and provide feedback to the researchers about the system.
Current reasons for concern with human trials.
Illustration by Xinmei Liu
While the Neuralink might be the key to studying and treating the brain, there are many ethical dilemmas surrounding the technology.
Elon Musk had been working on Neuralink's goal of using implants to connect the human brain to computers for around five years before human trials began. During that period of time the device had only been tested on animals. In 2022 the company faced scrutiny after a monkey died during project testing while researchers were trying to get the animal to play the video game 'Pong'. Furthermore, according to the New York Post, in a report against Neuralink records show the animal experiments involved 23 monkeys in total. Of these 23 at least 15 died or were euthanized by 2020. That shows a 35% survival rate of the monkeys which were tested.
CNN confirms that the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine – a US nonprofit that advocates alternatives to animal testing – sent a letter to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) referencing violations and requesting an investigation into Neuralink’s animal testing. The letter spans more than 700 pages showing a “pattern of extreme suffering and staff negligence”. The records obtained were from the 23 monkeys used in the experiments.
Furthermore, The New York Post expands on the same letter, quoting the Physicians Committee of Responsible Medicine reported that “Many, if not all, of the monkeys experienced extreme suffering as a result of inadequate animal care and the highly invasive experimental head implants during the experiments, which were performed in pursuit of developing what Neuralink and Elon Musk have publicly described as a ‘brain-machine interface,’”
The alleged abuses greatly contrast the “happy” monkey that can be seen playing Pong with its brain which brings into question the ethics behind this product’s testing, its current approval into human trials and the transparency of the Neuralink’s process.
Elon Musk has been involved in multiple controversies since the initial announcement of the Neuralink with the most ironic being his suggestion that the Unabomber may have been right about technology. For those that do not know the Unabomber; Theodore John Kaczynski was a lone bomber that terrorised the US nation for nearly 20 years between 1979 and 1996. His most famous work however, was his manifesto contending that the Industrial Revolution began a harmful process of natural destruction brought about by technology, forcing humans to adapt to machinery and creating sociopolitical order that suppresses human freedom and potential.
While in recent years we have seen that theory not too far off with many jobs having to adjust to the development of AI in art, design and writing; it is still fairly hypocritical for a household name in the tech industry to agree with such a view while creating an implant that may control the powerhouse of the body. Furthermore, it’s needless to say that everything Elon Musk has created today would not be here without the industrial revolution and his comments have further caused critics to wonder if the famous entrepreneur will heed his own warnings and take action. There has also been an increased cause of concern over his own technology linked to AI as in April last year he stated people should be cautious with AI.
As we now know, the aim of the Neuralink is to implant tiny threads into the brain which could then be used as a connection between the brain and external devices. This interface would then be used for both input and output information. As a result, the Neuralink would give the user direct communication between the brain and computers (or other devices).
According to CNN the Neuralink’s founder, Walter Isaacson, reported that Musk was inspired by science fiction authors such as Iain Banks to pursue a “human-machine interface technology called ‘neural lace’ that is implanted into people and can connect all of their thoughts to a computer. This calls into question real world applications of sci-fi as most stories tend to end with grave consequences, often warning against such technologies. However, that’s not to say we should always draw direct parallels between fiction and real life.
With much controversy and discourse surrounding the Neuralink and mixed signals from the man behind it all, people are left wondering just how many brains could be damaged in Musk’s quest into the future. And will it all have been worth it?