Elon Musk’s first step to ‘superhuman cognition’ revealed in pig’s brain

31 Aug 2020

Still from ‘Neuralink Progress Update, Summer 2020’. Image: Neuralink/YouTube

At a live Neuralink event, Elon Musk revealed Gertrude, one of the first living things to be implanted with the early ‘superhuman cognition’ chip.

A device described as a “Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires” had its big unveiling within a pig pen. As reported by The Guardian, Elon Musk’s Neuralink project – founded in 2016 – revealed a pig called Gertrude that had been implanted with a coin-sized computer chip in the first steps towards a brain-computer interface.

In 2017, Neuralink announced that it was developing “neural lace” that could allow people to communicate directly with machines without going through a physical interface. This, it was theorised, could allow people with neurological conditions to control devices with their mind.

Musk has said that the overall goal of the project is to bring “superhuman cognition” to the human race, in part to alleviate his well-publicised fears that artificial intelligence will eventually pose a threat to the species’ survival.

A total of three pigs were included in the livestreamed event last Friday (28 August), including Gertrude with the Neuralink implant inserted into her brain; Dorothy who had the device implanted and then removed; and a third pig called Joyce who never had the implant.

Musk said the concept that was revealed back in 2017 has gone under substantial changes since then as it no longer includes a visible ear device and is now small enough to be implanted directly into the brain under local anaesthesia.

“It actually fits quite nicely in your skull,” Musk said. “It could be under your hair and you wouldn’t know.”

Possible to remove device

The latest device consists of more than 3,000 electrodes that are attached to flexible threads thinner than a human hair, and it is capable of monitoring the activity of 1,000 brain neurons. Dorothy’s appearance at the event, Musk said, was to show the device can be safely removed if needed.

“What Dorothy illustrates is that you can put in the Neuralink, remove it, and be healthy, happy and indistinguishable from a normal pig,” he said. Musk also claimed that the start-up has secured approval for ‘breakthrough device designation’ from the US FDA.

While this does not mean it is approved by the FDA, this designation can help speed up the regulatory process for devices that could “provide for more effective treatment or diagnosis of life-threatening or irreversibly debilitating diseases or conditions”.

Although Musk provided no scientific data to support his claims that the device could one day allow someone to summon a Tesla car or play video games with their mind, Neuralink has garnered significant interest from investors. To date, the company has raised $150m – including $100m from Musk – and employs approximately 100 people. Its founder said the eventual plan is to hire up to 10,000.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic