Elon Musk Debuts How Neuralink Device Works in Real-Time

Elon Musk unveils how Neuralink devices work in real-time, debuting successful animal trials.
Brad Bergan

Neuralink — Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk's most secretive company — debuted "a working Neuralink device" in the firm's first public event since July 2019, according to a tweet from Musk.

The event showcased the Link device installation, how a living animal (in this case, a pig) can function normally after having one removed, and the kind of data collected via a Neuralink device.

The event was scheduled for August 28, at 6:00 PM EDT, and streamed live from Neuralink's YouTube page at roughly 6:40 PM EDT.


UPDATE August 20, 7:55 PM EDT: Read speed of Neuralink

All of the Neuralink V.0.9's 1,024 channels are capable of recording and stimulating. There is compression and extraction of signal that happens much faster than the speed of the brain in terms of signal resolution.

At present, the Neuralink team is digitizing signals from the brain at 20 kHz — with signals of interest at roughly 1 millisecond in width. "Spike detection is done in less than 900 nanoseconds which is really really fast timing," said a member of Neuralink's team.

"This is version 0.9, or aspirationally version one — as we go to versions two, three and four, these things will expand I think ultimately by orders of magnitude — many orders of magnitude," added Musk during the live stream.

UPDATE August 20, 7:50 PM EDT: Musk aims for device that can last 'for decades' in the brain, 'goldilocks' level insulation

There is a "goldilocks level" of insulation for the device. "You don't want to corrode the electrodes over time," said Musk. "It has to be just the right amount of insulation, and it has to stay that amount of insulation over time," Musk said.

UPDATE August 20, 7:40 PM EDT: Neuralink device will be upgraded to interact with deeper structures of the brain

The device will be modified to interact with deeper layers of the brain, according to an official from Neuralink. "You could solve blindness, you can solve paralysis, you can solve hearing [issues]," added Musk.

"There are deeper brain systems that are underneath the cortex, like the hypothalamus [...] which will be important for curing things like depression, addiction, [...] anxiety," Musk said during the Q&A section.

To do this, the device will need longer wires, and the installation surgery robot will have to be upgraded to reach deeper into the brain safely, said Musk.

UPDATE August 20, 7:30 PM EDT: Neuralink will allow Tesla owners to summon vehicle 'telepathically'

A question from Twitter asked the Neuralink team if the Link device will allow wearers to summon their Tesla vehicle "telepathically;" presumably meaning via electrical signal from the brain, without an external device.

"Definitely, of course," said Musk, in reply. "It's very easy, that's the easy one."

UPDATE August 20, 7:20 PM EDT: Neuralink received 'breakthrough device' designation from FDA in July

Musk said Neuralink received "breakthrough device" designation from the FDA in July 2020 — a major step toward eventually mass-producing Neuralink devices.

UPDATE August 20, 7:15 PM EDT: Requirements for Neuralink functionality

Musk listed the requirements for "writing to the brain," which include precise control of the local electric field in time and space, a wide range of current for varying brain regions, and (of course) no harm to the brain from Neuralink activity.

Neuralink Writing Brain Activity
The red squiggle is an electron firing from Neuralink, and the green illuminating around it is the brain's neurons responding. Source: Neuralink / YouTube

The device uses "two-photon microscopy" to image the neurons in real-time. The device stimulates a cluster of neurons, which causes them to "light up."

UPDATE August 20, 7:10 PM EDT: 'Three Little Pigs' real-time Neuralink demo

Musk introduced three little pigs: Joyce (without an implant), Dorothy (who used to have an implant, now removed) — to set an example for reversibility or upgrade capability. In other words, there are no side effects from getting a Link, or changing one's mind and having it removed, said Musk.

Neuralink Pig Implant
A pig with a Neuralink implant shows activity every time the pig touches her snout. Source: Neuralink / YouTube

The third pig, Gertrude, has a Neuralink device in her head. A graphical display shows spikes form the 1,024 electrodes detecting activity in the neurons whenever the third pig touches something with her snout.

Gertrude has had the implant for two months, according to Musk — without any snags.

UPDATE August 20, 7:05 PM EDT: Getting a Link takes 'less than an hour,' new robot causes 'no noticeable damage'

Musk said getting a Link installed would take less than an hour. The steps involve opening the skull, installing the device with a robot, and then closing the opening in the skull with superglue.

Neuralink Surgical Robot
Musk said the installation process would leave 'no noticeable damage' to the wearer of the Link from surgical insertion. Source: Neuralink / YouTube

The new robot was debuted — a large, streamlined machine that can install a Link with "no bleeding," thanks to a pre-imaging process carried out by a Neuralink team. "You'll see no noticeable damage," said Musk.

UPDATE August 20, 7:00 PM EDT: Neuralink 'Link' device 'dramatically simplifies design architecture'

Neuralink's architecture "dramatically simplifies" the complexity of a computer-brain interface device. Debuting "The Link," Musk described the interface as being "kind of like a Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires."

Musk Holding Device
Musk holding 'The Link' device, which fits 'flush' in a human skull. Source: Neuralink / YouTube

Link V0.9 has 1,024 channels per Link. Musk says installing the device will leave only a tiny scar, and includes all the sensors one would expect in a smartwatch or smartphone.

Neuralink Link Device
Each Neuralink Link device will feature 1,024 channels. Source: Neuralink / YouTube

The device can predict imminent health issues, and play music.

Neuralink Device Inductively Charged
The Link device can charge overnight, and be used all day, says Musk. Source: Neuralink / YouTube

The device is inductively charged, which means "you can use it all day, charge it at night, and it would have full functionality," said Musk.

UPDATE August 20, 6:45 PM EDT: Neuralink could help 'solve important brain and spine problems'

Musk opened the event around 6:40 PM EDT. The Neuralink device is intended to be affordable and available for the greatest number of people. "I think it's going to blow your mind," said Musk.

The goal is to "solve important brain and spine problems with a seamlessly implanted device," according to a slide during the live stream.

Neuralink Health Applications
Musk claims a Neuralnk device can potentially treat or repair all of these health issues. Source: Neuralink / YouTube

An implanted device can solve all of these problems, claimed Musk. Describing all symptoms and various neurological conditions as electrical signals between the brain and the body, Musk suggested these "could all be solved with a practical Neuralink. I think lot of people don't quite understand that."

Neuralink Present Medical Research
Current medical technology for neural interface is limited. Source: Neuralink / YouTube

He described human neurons as (electrical) wiring — and thus not difficult to repair, in theory.

UPDATE August 20, 6:27 PM EDT: Musk's Neuralink device debut delayed

Elon Musk is set to debut the first working Neuralink device in real-time, but for unknown reasons the live stream has been delayed for at least 25 minutes.

More updates on the firm's first working brain computer interface device are forthcoming.

Elon Musk debuts 'working' Neuralink in real-time

On his Twitter page, Musk has promised to reveal the first working Neuralink to the world with a demonstration of the new device in action, reports Inverse. More than once he referenced Neuralink's motto: "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" — ostensibly referring to machines, computers and artificial intelligence (AI), and how via cybernetic modification, humans may find ways of directly interfacing with digital environments.

As of writing, Neuralink is focused on designing chips capable of helping medical patients, but Musk has spoken about his worries of AI becoming a threat to humanity one day — by outsmarting us. Neuralink, he reasons, might help us more effectively interface and communicate with these smart systems to develop a symbiotic relationship with advanced machines of the future.

"It's important that Neuralink solves this problem sooner rather than later, because the point at which we have digital superintelligence, that's when we pass the singularity and things become just very uncertain," said Musk in a 2019 interview.

His goal is ambitious, but Musk suggested Friday's event will be more concrete than we might imagine. But this doesn't mean there won't be show-stoppers during the broadcast — Musk's teasing tweets imply he may have something spectacular in store.

Elon Musk Neuralink
Elon Musk is set to debut the first working Neuralink device on Friday. Source: Web Summit / Flickr

Neuralink's development record, functionality

During Neuralink's 2019 event, the firm debuted the N1 chip. It's 4 millimeters by 4 millimeters, rests inside a sealed cylinder, and features 1,024 electrodes capable of detecting activity from the brain's neurons, reports Inverse. Every electrode is 5 microns thick, resting 60 microns away from human neurons — a major advancement over rival interfaces, according to the company. For example, other chips currently in use to help people suffering from Parkinson's only have 10 electrodes.

Neuralink's N1 chip might work like this: every person will have four chips, each connected to a device near the ear, giving their brain direct access to control a smartphone or computer. During the 2019 event, the company declared it would begin clinical trials in people with quadriplegia from C1 through C4 spinal cord injury before the end of this year.

Robots were used to control the chips — which makes a 2-millimeter incision in the skin, then dilates the opening to 8 millimeters, inserts the chip, and subsequently glues the cut shut. The entire procedure is supposed to take less than an hour.

Musk's event may reveal results of 2020 trials

This is why we might expect updates on the possibility of human trials. Musk has also said we'll see a real-time demonstration of the brain's neurons firing. Additionally, we can expect to see the next-gen version of the robot used for inserting the N1 chip last year. In a tweet, Musk said it's "still far from LASIK [eye surgery], but could get pretty close in a few years."