Neuralink this week released a three-and-a-half-minute video of a monkey playing a game of Pong with its mind. The nine-year-old macaque has a Neuralink brain implant.
Elon Musk explained on Twitter that the Neuralink device “is implanted flush with the skull and charges wirelessly, so you look and feel totally normal”.
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Monkey playing a video game with its mind
The monkey, called Pager, was implanted with two Neuralink devices back in February, one on each side of its brain. Since then, Pager has learned how to use a joystick to move a cursor on the screen.
The video’s narrator explains that the device records Pager’s neuron activity while he interacts with the computer. This ‘link’ was created by implanting more than 2 000 electrodes (tiny wires, if you will) in Pager’s motor cortex – the part of the brain that coordinates hand and arm movements.
The data received from the link is then fed through a decoder algorithm to “predict Pager’s intended hand movements in real-time”. If you think it all sounds like something from a sci-fi movie, just wait until you see it in action.
Notice how Pager controls the paddle in the video game while the joystick is unplugged? Yes, you guessed it, that’s because he was using his mind to move the cursor.
Watch: Monkey using Neuralink brain implant
The Neuralink device can be paired with an iPhone in the same way you’d pair a Bluetooth speaker, a smartwatch or a set of earbuds. When the data from Pager’s firing neurons are fed through the algorithm, that’s when the magic happens. The narrator explains:
“We calibrate the decoder by mathematically modelling the relationship between patterns of neural activity and the different joystick movements they produce.”
After only a few minutes of calibration, the research team can “use the output from the decoder to move the cursor, instead of the joystick”. Yes, the monkey is still using the joystick out of habit, but the joystick is not connected.
The narrator explains the Pager is “controlling the cursor entirely with decoded neural activity”. Musk joked on Twitter that Pager would soon “be on Twitch and Discord”.
While it’s fun to imagine a monkey playing computer games with its mind, the real-world applications of Neuralink stretch much further. According to Musk, the goal is to assist someone living with paralysis:
“First @Neuralink product will enable someone with paralysis to use a smartphone with their mind faster than someone using thumbs”.
He adds that later versions of the device will “be able to shunt signals from Neuralinks in the brain to Neuralinks in body motor/sensory neuron clusters, thus enabling, for example, paraplegics to walk again”.
“Our goal is to enable a person with paralysis to use a computer or phone with their brain activity alone. Because they wouldn’t be able to move a joystick, they would calibrate the decoder by imagining hand movements to targets.”