What is Neuralink? Elon Musk’s Brain Chip Company Explained

Dystopia or medical panacea? Here's everything you need to know about Musk's neural chip company.

Whether you consider Elon Musk a visionary, a comic book villain, or something between the two, it’s hard to deny he knows how to build a successful business.

Dumpster fire acquisition of Twitter aside, Musk has co-founded six companies, including household names Space X, Tesla, and OpenAI, and lesser-known startups like Neuralink.

While Neuralink has largely existed in the shadows since its launch in 2016, the neurotechnology company has recently hit headlines for implanting its first brain chip into a human.

The technology may seem straight out of a Black Mirror episode, but its implications are very real. So, if you’re curious about Neuralink, read on to learn more about the company, its questionable history, and its first-ever human trial.

What is Neuralink, and Its Latest Device ‘Telepathy’?

Neuralink is a biotech startup founded by Elon Musk and a team of seven scientists and engineers. While the neural-interface company was created in 2016, it remained under the radar until its trademark was purchased from previous owners in 2017. Neuralink has developed an implantable brain chip that aims to let humans control external devices like laptops and smartphones with their minds.

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The coin-sized device, called ‘Telepathy’, enters the brain through a hole in the skull, and connects to gray matter through over a thousand electrode threads.

Telepathy is supposedly able to monitor the activity of the brain, and then decode these mental functions using artificial intelligence.

According to Musk, by letting people control technological devices with their thoughts, the device will hopefully be able to allow users with disabilities to  ‘communicate faster than an auctioneer’. But this isn’t its only purpose.

Neuralink also believes its chip device will be able to restore neural activity within the body, allowing people with spinal cord injuries to regain movement, provide positive applications to those with neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s and dementia, and even restore sight to the blind.

Significantly, Musk revealed the ultimate aim of the technology is to create a “symbiosis with artificial intelligence”, raising alarm bells for those mindful of the existential threat posed by AI.

What Do We Know About Neuralink’s First Procedure?

After years of development, Neuralink has finally implanted a brain chip into its first human patient.

According to co-founder Musk, the patient is recovering well, and the Telepathy chip is appearing to work as intended, with initial results “showing promising neuron spike detection”.

If the company’s first human trial goes well, this could be a major breakthrough for Neuralink, and  represent a leap forward in the company’s brain-computer interface technology. However, despite Neuralink’s recent success, major question marks hang over the company’s ethics, and overarching mission.

Neuralink’s Bloody History

In its short history, the brain interface company has already been the subject of multiple federal investigations for packing and transporting contaminated hardware in an unsafe manner.

Specifically, records were found that suggest Neuralink mishandled devices carrying infectious pathogens that posed a risk to human health in 2019, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. The devices were extracted from the brains of primates and may have been contaminated with viruses like Herpes and Klebsiella.

Neuralink also came under fire over its unethical animal testing practices, which resulted in the deaths of multiple primates in the company’s research facilities. These accusations have been substantiated by documents released by a researcher from the University of California.

Shockingly, the veterinary documents reveal that as many as a dozen primates were treated inhumanly before being euthanized. But primates weren’t the company’s only victims, with sources from Reuters estimating that a total of 1,500 animals were experimented on and killed by Neuralink between 2018 and 2022.

After receiving FDA clearance for human clinical trials in May last year, the biotechnology company has since ended animal testing. But with so much controversy still surrounding its research practices and implications, Neuralink has a long way to go before its implantable technology is accepted into the mainstream.

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Written by:
Isobel O'Sullivan (BSc) is a senior writer at Tech.co with over four years of experience covering business and technology news. Since studying Digital Anthropology at University College London (UCL), she’s been a regular contributor to Market Finance’s blog and has also worked as a freelance tech researcher. Isobel’s always up to date with the topics in employment and data security and has a specialist focus on POS and VoIP systems.
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