09/01/2020 / By Cassie B.
When Elon Musk presented his creepy Neuralink brain implant in a streamed product update on YouTube on Friday, he said he believed that billions of people will be clamoring for it – but real scientists have expressed serious skepticism.
The stated goal of Neuralink is to “implant wireless brain-computer interfaces that include thousands of electrodes in the most complex human organ to help cure neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s, dementia and spinal cord injuries and ultimately fuse humankind with artificial intelligence.”
Other issues it claims to address include seizures, extreme pain, addiction, insomnia, strokes and brain damage.
Musk presented a pig named Gertrude who he claims has had a Neuralink computer chip in her brain for the last two months. Musk said the coin-sized chip was like “a Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires” and would connect to a person’s phone over Bluetooth to be charged wirelessly overnight.
In a critique published in MIT Technology Review, scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were quick to point out the absurdity of the entire spectacle, calling it “neuroscience theater.” They said that promises like being able to see radar with superhuman vision, playing symphonies in your head, and healing deafness, blindness, mental illness and paralysis are going to be difficult to keep.
The article says that none of the advances mentioned are even close to becoming a reality, and some are extremely unlikely to happen. They also called Musk out for his noncommittal language and lack of firm timelines. They even shrugged off the pig demonstration, saying that it was decades-old technology that some researchers have been using for years.
They also showed that Musk isn’t quite as innovative as he might think, pointing out that researchers have been putting probes in paralyzed people’s brains since the 1990s to show how signals can allow them to move robotic arms or cursors on counters.
In addition, the MIT researchers took issue with the fact that Neuralink and Musk haven’t committed to any of the potential medical applications they touted. They did not disclose any plans to carry out clinical trials, which many believed would be the next logical step. They added that it’s not clear just how serious they are about treating diseases. That’s unfortunate because the presentation has already given some people who are desperate to find solutions to their ailments a degree of false hope.
Robots will perform surgery to implant the chips in people’s brainsNeuralink is working on a robot that will carry out the entire surgical installation process, which entails opening up a person’s scalp, removing a part of their skull, inserting the computer chip and thread electrodes, and then closing the incision. It will somehow be able to dodge blood vessels to prevent bleeding, they claim.
The criticism from the experts at MIT comes not long after the medical industry news website Stat exposed serious turmoil within Neuralink. In the piece, five former employees described a “chaotic internal culture” and an environment akin to a “pressure cooker.”
They recounted how a strong push to move the technology forward led to failures in animal experiments, with one former worker saying that the company moved from rodent experiments into those with primates quicker than one would expect in medical science.
Even if Neuralink is ultimately able to help alleviate some of the health concerns they claim they can address, getting people on board will be another big hurdle. Who would be willing to have a robot drill a hole into their head to remove part of their skull and place a chip inside their brain?
Besides the risk of infection and the potential need for follow-up surgeries to adjust the positioning of the electrodes or install newer versions of the chips, the long-term effects are very much unknown and could be catastrophic. Needless to say, there’s also the potential for hackers to cause serious harm. And when the person behind all this is someone as erratic and untrustworthy as Elon Musk, it’s hard to imagine anyone in their right mind will be signing up.
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