- Elon Musk’s Neuralink has applied to the FDA for approval to begin human trials.
- If approval is granted, the company is likely to start human testing on the device in 2023.
- The company believes that they will be able to potentially restore sight in blind people and could even give people with severed spinal cords the ability to walk again.
- Musk has stated that he plans to implant one of devices into his own brain once they’re ready.
Amongst all the buzz around his takeover of Twitter, sending rockets to Mars, building self-driving electric cars and creating a humanoid robot, you’d be forgiven if you’ve forgotten that Elon Musk is also working on brain implants.
Yes, we’re talking about microchips to be implanted in human brains.
Like many of Elon Musk’s long term objectives for his projects, the goals for Neuralink are pretty lofty. Eventually they hope to be able to create a human computer interface, which will allow us to interact with computers using just our minds.
Insert mind blown emoji here.
In the short term, the aim is to allow people with brain or spinal cord injuries to gain back function. Musk stated at a recent Neurlink event that the initial applications for the device could include the ability to restore vision for the blind, and even to allow paralysed people to walk again.
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How will Neuralink work?
The central premise of Neuralink is that it will be able to read our minds. How will it do that? According to their website, Neuralink will be designed to connect to thousands of neurons within our brains.
Neurons are the cells which make up our brain and central nervous system. It’s the way the message from our mind to ‘pick up that glass’ travels from a thought down to physically moving our arm and hand.
The concept of Neuralink is that by connecting to these neurons in our brain, it can interpret the messages and implement them for us. For people with brain injuries or problems with motor function, this would be life-changing.
Imagine someone who was diagnosed with ALS and was unable to speak or easily move their hands. Communication for people in this situation can be really difficult. With Neuralink, they could simply think about what they wanted to say, and Neuralink could transmit this via Bluetooth to a smart speaker or other device which could speak their thoughts for them.
It could allow them to browse the internet, including ordering groceries or booking appointments, purely by using the keyboard and mouse with their mind.
If it works the way it’s intended, it is game changing technology and literally the stuff of science fiction movies.
Elon Musk has stated that, “We’re confident there are no physical limitations to restoring full body functionality” for people with severed spinal cords.
As far as longer term applications, the possibilities are almost endless. There are suggestions that it could be used by people with disabilities to help improve their memory and cognitive function, by acting as a bridge between different parts of the brain.
As with any cutting edge technology, there are likely to be a massive number of use cases that won’t become obvious until the tech is in widespread use.
Neuralink could start human trials in 2023
Last week Neuralink streamed a live event which provided an update on the company’s technology and plans. Elon Musk spoke for some time on the stream giving his take on the roadmap for Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval and his vision for the company.
One of the biggest announcements to come from the presentation was that Neuralink has applied for FDA approval to allow them to commence human trials.
That’s right, we could be less than a year away from having human brains implanted with microchips. It might seem like a crazy technology to implement, and maybe you’re wondering who in their right mind would sign up for this.
Well the truth is, the potential benefits for this with severe disabilities are enormous. Obviously we won’t know the details of the people who agree to undergo the trials, but it’s a fair assumption that a large portion of them could stand to have their lives potentially changed by the technology.
Elon Musk has even stated that he plans to have one of the devices implanted himself once they’re ready and approved for human use.
It’s also worth noting that this type of device isn’t without precedent.
Vagus nerve stimulation involves the implantation of a device which sends electrical pulses through the vagus nerve and into the brainstem. It’s a treatment that used to treat epilepsy, as well as mental health problems such as depression.
The Cochlear implant is another example which is implanted under the skin and sends signals from an external microphone to the auditory nerve.
Now, both of these devices are much more primitive than anything that Neuralink is expecting to be able to achieve, but the point is that the researchers and engineers aren’t starting from complete zero when it comes to linking hardware to our brains and nervous system.
Controversy over Neuralink
Despite all these exciting claims, Neuralink isn’t without controversy. Then again, would you expect anything less from a company run by Elon Musk?
Most recently they’ve been in the headlines over a reported investigation into their animal testing protocols. It’s been alleged that there have been around 1,500 animals killed during testing, including pigs, sheeps and monkeys.
That might seem shocking, but the unfortunate truth of the medical and pharmaceutical industry is that it’s not uncommon. The fact that this number of animals have been killed through the testing phase isn’t an indication that Neuralink is doing anything wrong.
Animal testing is a vital part of the development process for new medical devices and pharmaceutical, to test the safety and efficacy prior to testing on humans. Even so, there have been accusations that the number of animal deaths have been higher than necessary.
Outside of that, some medical professionals are skeptical over Musk’s bold claims.
The head of the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU Grossman School of Medicine Art Caplan is one who suggests caution over the promises of the device, saying “This isn’t quite the same as trying to compete in the car business. You have to be really careful about overpromising or overhyping when you’re dealing with groups like people with spinal cord injury, blindness or neurological damage or disease.”
What does this mean for investors?
Right now Neuralink is a private company, meaning that most regular investors aren’t able to put any money in. Even so, that’s not to say it won’t be in the future. Regardless, it’s yet another example of how technology has the ability to change the world and drive huge value for investors.
Not only that, it’s another practical example of the power of AI in driving forward innovation. And that’s something we’re very on board with.
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Not only does it do this across the verticals, but also for the individual holdings within each vertical too. You might not be able to have a Neuralink implanted in your brain anytime soon, but you can have an AI running your investment portfolio today.
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