In August 2020, Elon Musk demonstrated Neuralink’s first generation implantable “Fitbit” for the brain with a trio of cyborg pigs. Now, nine months later, the neurotechnology company headed by the engineer-turned-entrepreneur has released a video of a monkey telepathically playing Pong. And as odd as that sounds, Neuralink says it stands as a big step toward helping people with paralysis communicate with computers. And, ultimately, recover their mobility.
Musk’s mind-machine-melding company just dropped the above video to its YouTube channel. The monkey featured in the demo, Pager, a nine-year-old Macaque, has had a Neuralink device implanted in his brain. Seemingly the same type of Oreo-Mini-sized device the company implanted in the pigs.
In the demonstration, Neuralink shows how it can collect a readout of Pager’s neurological activity using its “N1 Link” device. The Link can gather this data because it has 1,024 ultra-thin electrodes plunged into the Macaque’s brain (in the GIF below); with each one detecting the firing of a single neuron. In this case, the firing of neurons that control the hand and arm areas of the motor cortex.
Using bilateral Links, Neuralink engineers are able to record the neural activity associated with Pager’s hand and arm movements. They’re then able to build a model that can predict the direction and speed of an upcoming or intended movement. Meaning if Pager intends to move his arm or hand, the Link recognizes the neural activity of the command.
Once Neuralink’s able to recognize the neural activity associated with different movement commands, it’s then able to use them as controller inputs for computer programs. Or, in this case, paddle movements in a game of MindPong. (Neuralink’s engineers trained Pager to play MindPong using “a tasty banana smoothie” reward.)
Despite the wow factor of MindPong, however, Neuralink’s focus is still far more practical. At least in the short term, anyway.
“Our first goal is to give people with paralysis their digital freedom back: to communicate more easily via text, to follow their curiosity on the web, to express their creativity through photography and art, and, yes, to play video games,” Neuralink wrote in a MindPong blog post. After that, the company wants to use the Links to restore physical mobility for people with paralysis by electrically stimulating their nerves and muscles.
Beyond those uses, the Link’s abilities begin to grow quite sci-fi. Neuralink adds in its blog post, for example, that people will be able to wirelessly control their phones via Bluetooth signals from their brains. Musk even said on Twitter that gamers who want to play telepathically can receive the device. And while that all sounds amazing, we’ll probably keep gaming with our extremities until Link version N1,000 comes out.