Reuters reports that Elon Musk’s Neuralink Company is under federal investigation for potential violations of the Animal Welfare Act.
I wanted to understand Neuralink’s product and the science behind it. Reuters has a “Factbox: Neuralink: what you need to know about Elon Musk’s brain chip company.” Not helpful. I decided to go to the source, the Neuralink website. Reader, my bullshit detector redlined.
One of the first things I look for in a company website is the people behind it. Nada. I have not seen a single name on the website. No way to check up on what the scientists there might be doing, or their expertise in doing it.
Okay then, what is the Neuralink chip, what is it proposed to do, and how have they progressed to animal tests, in particular on macaques, which are commonly used in research?
What is the Neuralink chip?
This page contains some photos. It looks (no, there are no specs given) like the “chip” is about the diameter of a quarter, but thicker. It contains a power source and printed circuits, allowing Bluetooth. The power source, the page says, can be recharged from the outside. The connection to the brain involves many (no number given) “thread-like” electrodes. No spec sheet, no numbers beyond “thousands of connections” to the brain.
What is it proposed to do?
Much is said – proportionately to the very small amount of information on the website – about the goal being “to help people with paralysis regain independence through the control of computers and mobile devices.” The following two quotes are on this page.
We are designing the Link to connect to thousands of neurons in the brain, so that it may one day be able to record the activity of these neurons, process these signals in real time, and translate intended movements directly into the control of an external device.
We believe this technology has the potential to treat a wide range of neurological disorders, to restore sensory and motor function, and eventually to expand how we interact with each other and experience the world around us. [My emphasis]
In a recent recruitment event, Musk went further.
It looks like the stated objective of helping disabled people is the façade for what Elon thinks will be a great stride forward in human perception. No clue about how this will happen.
How have they progressed to macaques?
Ah well. Nothing about the research or its interim goals and how those goals are being met. It’s clear that something the size of a quarter is not going to fit in a mouse’s skull, so if you’re working with womething like that, you have to go to a fairly large monkey or a pig.
The website contains nothing about how Neuralink works or how it picks up electrical signals in the brain and translates them into something usable by the hardware and software. One might think that elements of this could be tested in mouse brains, with limited implants detecting particular signals to develop a way to translate them into signals to be sent over Bluetooth. And what does the signals do where they are received?
Animal experimentation requires significant preparation and paperwork. The Animal Welfare Act is part of it, but there are also ethical considerations. Universities have Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees that must approve the use of vertebrate animals in research. Here’s the University of Michigan’s description of their committee.
I don’t know those requirements in detail, and I don’t know the requirements for an industrial laboratory. Presumably the scientists working at the Neuralink laboratories recognize that legal and ethical breaches can ruin their careers. Musk seems less careful.
I’ve been looking for articles in scientific journals by Neuralink scientists and haven’t found any.
All we have publicly is Musk’s word on everything about Neuralink. Government investigators may have more. In 2020, Musk showed off a pig that allegedly had an implant. Signals said to be from the implant showed neural activity. This is a long way from curing paralysis, blindness, and all the other things Musk claims. Brain implants exist, as shown in the graphic, to control epilepsy and other disorders. What Musk claims goes far beyond that.
It’s possible that all the appropriate groundwork – on mice, whatever – leading up to monkeys and pigs has been properly done and was not published because of secrecy about these great innovations. But federal investigators will want to see that groundwork, which will be essential to justify human trials.
The Reuters article gives cause for concern about the treatment of animals.
In all, the company has killed about 1,500 animals, including more than 280 sheep, pigs and monkeys, following experiments since 2018, according to records reviewed by Reuters and sources with direct knowledge of the company’s animal-testing operations. The sources characterized that figure as a rough estimate because the company does not keep precise records on the number of animals tested and killed. [My emphasis]
Every procedure that uses an animal should be recorded somewhere. That’s a requirement for the scientific research as well. You can’t just toss the experiments that don’t go well.
The rest of the article quotes Neuralink employees as claiming that Musk’s desire for speed has been a factor in botched animal experiments. Biological experiments are difficult to speed up. The old joke about being able to produce a baby in one month by getting nine women pregnant still holds. After surgery, the animals must heal and learn to deal with the implant, and that cannot be speeded up. From the article, it appears that surgeries themselves are speeded up, and perhaps the numbers of surgeries, resulting in mistakes.
The secrecy can be explained by a private company not required to report to shareholders and protection of amazing proprietary results. Without more information, however, there is no way to evaluate Musk’s claims.
Moving to clinical trials on humans, as Musk claims will happen in six months, depends on the FDA’s analysis of the data Neuralink gives them and the protocols proposed for the trials. That may make more information available to the public. But until more scientists can check out what Neuralink has done, the claims are worthless.
Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner