Neuralink’s Brain Chip Gets A Wide-Ranging Update

New telepathic typing, a new surgical robot & early developments in sight restoration for the blind.

Image credit: Max Pixel

In a rare update, Neuralink discussed its brain-computer interface and highlighted new monkey telepathic typing, a new surgical robot, and early developments in the restoration of sight in the blind and the restoration of movement and sensation in paraplegics.

Since Neuralink first demonstrated a telepathic game of monkey pong to us 18 months ago, it appears that advancement has been gradual rather than revolutionary.

Co-founder Elon Musk and the Neuralink team demonstrated new video footage of Sake the brain-chipped monkey using the implant to deftly and precisely control a mouse pointer on a screen, clicking on highlighted letters and words to spell out words and phrases suggested by the researchers. The demonstration was live-streamed, reports NewAtlas.

The "N1" implant, which is about the size of a US quarter, is intended to replace a portion of the recipient's skull in such a way that it is undetectable from the outside. It allows for 1,024 channels of two-way communication between the brain and the chip with 64 small, flexible needle probes that are painstakingly placed into the brain tissue at exact locations. It is completely wireless, including charging. The group unveiled the "R1"surgical robot that it used to install the gadget.

According to the company's VP of Implant, DJ Seo, "it's capable of navigating these small threads, which are just on the order of a few blood cells wide, and inserting them consistently into a moving brain while eschewing vasculature." It's pretty good at reliably accomplishing this. Seo went on to suggest that the complete probe insertion procedure should take approximately 15 minutes as the robot exhibited its ability to locate certain brain locations, then skillfully grip the small probes and poke them into the gloopy "brain proxy" of a demo dummy. Both detachable and upgradeable implants will be available. "With this product, the N1 and R1, our initial goal is to help people with paralysis from complete spinal cord injury regain their digital freedom by enabling them to use their devices as good as, if not better than they could before the injury," said Seo. "Over the last year, this has been the central focus of the company, and we've been working very closely with the FDA to get approval to launch our first human clinical trial in the US, hopefully in the next six months."

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Christine Odabashian, team lead for Insertion Hardware, walked attendees through the Neuralink implant installation procedure. The company hopes this will enable a single neurosurgeon to perform multiple procedures simultaneously, handling the skin, skull, protective duralayer, and other mechanical tasks while delegating the needlework into the actual brain to the R1 robot.

"It'd be very difficult to do manually," she explained. "Imagine taking a hair from your head, and trying to stick it into Jell-o covered by Saran Wrap. And doing this to a precise depth and position, and doing it 64 times within a reasonable amount of time. A neurosurgeon would probably not like it very much if we asked them to do this ... There's not that many neurosurgeons, maybe 10 per million people. It takes a decade or more to train a neurosurgeon, and they're generally very busy, and as you can imagine their time is very expensive. So in order for us to do the most good, and have an affordable and accessible procedure, we need to figure out how one neurosurgeon can oversee many procedures at the same time. This might sound crazy, but probably so did laser eye surgery before Lasik made it normal."

Neuralink intends to use a similar approach to Lasik, starting by using robots just for the most difficult tasks and gradually enhancing their capabilities to become fully automated. In order to manage precise skull cutting without harming the brain, the team is developing an automated CNC-style cutting machine.

Jürgen Thalmayer
December 15, 2022

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