The startup unveiled a sewing machine-like robot used to implant ultrafine flexible electrodes deep into the brain to detect neuron activity, during an event in San Francisco yesterday evening....

We told you so: It pretty much went as we’d predicted. (You can read our senior biomedicine editor Antonio Regalado's own scorecard here.) Neuralink says it has designed ultrafine threads (thinner than a human hair) which can be implanted into the brain to detect the activity of neurons. It’s also developed a robot to carry out the procedure, under the direction of a neurosurgeon.  The firm says the robot has implanted threads in 19 animals and was 87% successful, according to Bloomberg

Monkey business: The technology has been trialed on rats, but during the event Musk appeared to let slip that it’s also been tested on monkeys. “A monkey has been able to control the computer with his brain. Just, FYI,” he said. Neuralink claims its system will eventually be capable of reading, and transmitting, vast amounts of information.

Some background: Elon Musk founded Neuralink in 2017 with the goal of helping humans compete in a world where artificial intelligence has surpassed them. He’s since invested $100 million into the company.

Next steps: Neuralink plans to start testing its technology on human volunteers during the second quarter of 2020, pending FDA approval. Neuralink will drill four 8mm holes in their skulls, insert the threads that will pass neuronal data to an implant behind the ear. This will pass information to a computer. This is highly ambitious, and pretty unlikely, to say the least.

But... why? On stage Musk talked more about merging with a future artificial intelligence. "Even under a benign AI, we will be left behind. With a high bandwidth brain-machine interface, we will have the option to go along for the ride," he said, with his usual understatement.

But Matthew McDougall, Neuralink’s head neurosurgeon, said that the system is “only intended for patients with serious unmet medical diseases” and will target people with complete paralysis due to an upper spinal cord injury, according to the Guardian. So which is it? In any case, it’s unclear exactly how the implants would treat these sorts of conditions. Neuralink will have to answer that question if it’s ever going to get medical approval.  


The hardware is already being used to improve the performance of things like prosthetic limbs....

The news: Intel has just unveiled Pohoiki Beach, a system that contains 64 of its Loihi AI processors. These are so-called neuromorphic chips that seek to imitate the learning ability and energy efficiency of human brains. Although the technology is still in its infancy, it’s proving popular with researchers training various kinds of AI applications.

A silicon leg up: Pohoiki Beach can perform certain data-crunching tasks up to 1,000 times faster than more general-purpose processors such as CPUs and GPUs, while using much less power.

That’s an exciting prospect for AI researchers, a group of whom are already experimenting with the new hardware platform. Among other things, they are using it to improve the way prosthetic limbs adapt to uneven ground and to create more accurate digital maps that can be used by autonomous vehicles.

The next step: Rich Uhlig, the head of Intel Labs, predicts the company will produce a system capable of simulating 100 million neurons by the end of 2019. Researchers will then be able to apply it to a whole new set of applications, such as better control of robot arms.


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Innovators Under 35 | 2019

It’s part of our ethos that technology can and should be a force for good. In these profiles you’ll find people employing innovative methods to treat disease, to fight online harassment, and to create the next big battery breakthrough.