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'Linking our brains and computers': Elon Musk's controversial dive into human experimentation?

Lisa M. Krieger, The Mercury News on

Published in News & Features

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Elon Musk’s team has implanted a powerful computer chip inside a living person’s brain, a startling step toward a sci-fi future when we can steer computers with our thoughts.

The patient is fine. Results are promising. How do we know? Because Musk says so.

With great fanfare but disturbingly few details, his Fremont, California-based Neuralink Corp. has jumped into the perilous world of human experimentation.

The technology behind the robot-powered device, announced on Musk’s X (formerly known as Twitter) with the acclaim of a SpaceX rocket launch, seems dazzling. If it matures, it could ease communication for the millions of desperate people who suffer from paralysis, stroke and other dreadful conditions.

Someday, it may offer much more, asserts Musk. It could bestow mental superpowers on healthy people, dubbed “human augmentation,” by seamlessly linking our brains and computers to download knowledge and upload thoughts.

“Ultimately we will achieve symbiosis with artificial intelligence,” he promised at a rare Neuralink news conference in San Francisco in 2019. “This is something that I think will be really important on a civilization-level scale.”

 

While it’s not unusual for device or drug companies to tenaciously guard their intellectual property and competitive edge, the news this week is secrecy on a whole other scale, according to a consensus of neuroscientists and bioethicists.

Neuralink — whose private funders also include Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund and others — issued no official statement. The company didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment. No peer-reviewed papers have been published in scientific journals. Unlike most other research, the trial is not registered at ClinicalTrials.gov, an online repository curated by the U.S. National Institutes of Health. There’s no disclosure about how the company defines or measures success.

We don’t know if the patient is a Bay Area resident, their type of disability or where the surgery was performed. Its only source of public information is a study brochure on the company’s website.

Until this week, the company’s most notable public announcement was a YouTube video of a treated monkey playing the 1970s video game Pong solely with its mind. It ignited the internet with 6.6 million views.

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