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Neuralink: Futuristic on the Outside, Chaotic on the Inside

Neuralink: Futuristic on the outside, chaotic on the inside
Neuralink's breakthrough experiment © Neuralink

 A hole in the top of the skull through which a chip with 1024 electrodes is inserted and which will henceforth be used for reading out brain activity or even direct stimulation of neurons. Yes, Elon Musk has once again caught the attention of the public and the media world – this time with the startup Neuralink , which he co-founded and which has been working on a computer for the brain for several years.

In a recent presentation, Neuralink demonstrated the ability to successfully use the chip on pigs. It was shown, for example, how brain signals can be recorded live by the sense of touch of the snout. Neuralink has also optimized the procedure for inserting the chip into the pig’s brain – with a fully automatic device that will make the procedure much easier and cheaper in the future.

A brain chip against diseases?

Pigs are not Neuralink’s primary target, though. The company wants the chip to be inserted into human brains in the future. Musk holds out the prospect that serious illnesses such as spinal cord injuries and other nerve damage could be overcome, because the chip can not only record data, but also send impulses to the brain. Neuralink could also possibly take corrective action in the event of impairment of the senses (hearing loss or blindness) as well as depression and insomnia.

And the really big ideas are not missing either. According to Musk, it would one day be possible to send data (e.g. pictures) to someone’s brain via memory control or to download memories. There is also a prospect that humans and AI could enter into a symbiosis with the help of Neuralink. Musk does not dare to name a time horizon, but the goal is that the chip and the insertion should cost a few thousand dollars one day. At the moment, everything is still “very expensive”.

The ultimate employer branding campaign

Electrodes for brain stimulation are nothing new in medicine and are used, for example, to help Parkinson’s patients regain more control over their bodies. Also known is the Utah Array Chip, which was introduced in 2006 and was implanted in the brain of a cat. In comparison, the Neuralink chip is certainly more advanced, offers more electrodes and also appears to be easier to use.

The presentation of version 0.9 and the announcement that the US health authority FDA has included Neuralink in the ” Breakthrough Devices Program ” served Musk above all one thing last Friday: recruiting new employees. He said that openly at the start of the online show that Neuralink’s website has only one purpose right now: to fill vacancies in Austin, Texas, and Fremont, California. Around 100 people currently work for Neuralink, according to Musk, the company would need tens of thousands to achieve its big goals.

Internal turbulence

Talking about personnel, that might be a struggle. Five of the eight scientists who co-founded Neuralink in 2016 have already left the company, and former employees describe the corporate culture as chaotic. Supposably, the pressure on employees to deliver results is enormous like in a cookie cutter, and the slow pace of science cannot keep up with Musk’s demanding time limits.

“They’re building a medical device and a surgical approach to implant that medical device and approaching it like a technology company,” one of the former employees told Startnews.com . The motto – we already know that from Facebook – would be “Move fast and break things”. There is supposed to be a difference of opinions between the engineers and the neuroscientists, and Musk would usually side with the engineers. Neuralink is also planning to carry out tests on people in Russia or China, because the permit is difficult to get in the USA.

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