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What Elon Musk claims his Neuralink brain chip implant can do

Neuralink aims to give those with paralysis the ability to control their devices, including their smartphone, using just their thoughts.

FILE PHOTO: Neuralink logo and Elon Musk photo are seen in this illustration taken, December 19, 2022. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo
Elon Musk says his Neuralink company has inserted a chip into the brain of a human for the first time. (Reuters)

Elon Musk says one of his companies has successfully implanted a computer chip into a human's brain for the first time.

The tech entrepreneur said his start-up firm Neuralink inserted the brain chip into a subject on Sunday.

Musk wrote on X, formerly Twitter, which he owns: "The first human received an implant from Neuralink yesterday and is recovering well."

He said "initial results show promising neuron spike detection", referring to the cells that use electrical and chemical signals to send information around the brain and to the rest of the body.

Neuralink aims to give those with paralysis the ability to control their devices, including their smartphone, using just their thoughts.

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It is currently being trialled to test the functionality of its interface and the surgical robot used to implant the chips.

Neuralink says the threads of its implant are so fine that they cannot be inserted by the human hand, so a specially designed and built surgical robot carries out the procedure.

Musk, the billionaire Tesla and SpaceX boss, said the brain chip company's first product is called "Telepathy".

He wrote: “Enables control of your phone or computer, and through them almost any device, just by thinking. Initial users will be those who have lost the use of their limbs.

“Imagine if Stephen Hawking could communicate faster than a speed typist or auctioneer. That is the goal.”

Neuralink was granted clearance in the US last year for its first trial to test its chips in humans.

It plans to install brain chips in up to 11 people this year, and thousands of volunteers have come forward.

Elon Musk, owner of Tesla and the X (formerly Twitter) platform, attends a symposium on fighting antisemitism titled 'Never Again : Lip Service or Deep Conversation' in Krakow, Poland on January 22nd, 2024. Musk, who was invited to Poland by the European Jewish Association (EJA) has visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp earlier that day, ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day.  (Photo by Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Elon Musk said the first Neuralink product is called 'Telepathy'. (Getty Images)

A report by one of Musk's biographers, Ashlee Vance, described the procedure, with a surgeon removing a chunk of skull, before a robot weaves in electrodes and super-thin wires into the brain.

A separate unit sits behind the ear, with wires running directly into the wearer's brain.

Musk reportedly urged the team to speed up progress in the wake of a breakthrough last year by rival Synchron, one of whose patients sent a message on X using only his mind.

What happened in the first Neuralink human trial?

The first trial focused on people with quadriplegia due to cervical spinal cord injury or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

In the trial, Neuralink hopes to give people the ability to control a computer cursor or keyboard using their thoughts alone.

How does Neuralink work and what can it treat?

Neuralink's device has a chip that processes and transmits neural signals from implants in the brain to a unit behind the ear – and from there to devices like computers and phones.

The company hopes that a person would potentially be able to control a mouse, keyboard or other computer functions such as text messaging with their thoughts.

Watch: ‘Hope for the best but prepare for the worst’ with AI, says Musk

Neuralink also believes its device will eventually be able to restore neural activity inside the body, allowing those with spinal cord injuries to move limbs.

The San Francisco and Austin-based firm also aspires to cure neurological conditions such as Alzheimer's and dementia.

Is Neuralink unique?

Far from it. Not only are there direct rivals such as Synchron, but there are several other companies working on implants of various kinds.

BlackRock Neurotech's Neuralace can be installed in human brains (BlackRock Neurotech)
BlackRock Neurotech's Neuralace can be installed in human brains. (BlackRock Neurotech)

Writing in The Conversation, David Tuffley, senior lecturer in applied ethics and cyber security at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, said: "Neural implants have been helping people since the early 1960s when the first cochlear implant was placed in a person with impaired hearing. There has been much progress in the 60 years since then."

An under-the-radar firm, Blackrock Neurotech (unrelated to the asset management firm) has implanted brain computer interfaces (BCIs) in dozens of patients over the past 19 years.

Their chips have helped paralysed patients create art to play Pong in the lab – and the company hopes to create a version for use in the home soon, with ambitions to create implants that could deal with deafness and blindness.

What has Elon Musk claimed the tech will be able to do?

In his typical style, Musk has said Neuralink could lead to a future in which man and machine merge – and has promised to install the tech in himself.

He has made similarly ambitious statements in the past about the technology, which some hope could treat Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease, having said in 2019 that he would be testing on humans in 2020.

Replying to a question on X, Musk said that the technology could one day be used to stream music directly into users' brains.

He added that the technology "would solve a lot of brain/spine injuries and is ultimately essential for AI symbiosis".

Musk has previously said: "Over time I think we will probably see a closer merger of biological intelligence and digital intelligence.

"It's mostly about the bandwidth, the speed of the connection between your brain and the digital version of yourself, particularly output."