MindPong: Monkey uses brain implant to play virtual table tennis

9 Apr 2021

Pager the macaque playing Pong with his mind. Image: Neuralink

Neuralink said that a nine-year-old macaque, Pager, has successfully used a brain implant to move a cursor on a screen without using a joystick.

While SpaceX has been continuing its work beyond Earth’s atmosphere, another Elon Musk-owned company, Neuralink, has been exploring something much closer to home – the brain. The neurotech company claimed this week that it has successfully given a monkey the ability to play Pong with its mind.

Pong is a table tennis video game from the 1970s. Today, the game is typically played using a mouse and keyboard. But for Pager, a nine-year-old macaque, a small implant in the brain has seemingly allowed him to move a cursor around on a screen using his eyes.

This brain-machine interface (BMI) implant has been called Link. Neuralink first published details of its design in 2019, and last year revealed a pig that it said had been implanted with a coin-sized computer chip in the first steps towards a brain-computer interface.

Neuralink said that its N1 Link hosts a 1,024-electrode fully-implanted neural recording and data-transmission device, which was implanted in the areas of Pager’s motor cortex that control his hand and arm movements. A device was placed on each side of the monkey’s brain to control the left and right side of his body.

The neurons in this part of the brain are believed to be involved in planning voluntary movements as well as controlling them. Neuralink claimed to have modelled the relationship between different patterns of Pager’s neural activity and his intended movement directions to form a prediction of the speed and direction of an upcoming movement.

“We can use these predictions to control, in real time, the movements of a computer cursor, or in the video below, a MindPong paddle,” the company said in a blog post.

Applications for ‘digital freedom’

Neuralink said its first goal with BMI technology is to “give people with paralysis their digital freedom back”, by enabling them to communicate more easily via text and access digital tools.

The team also intends to research the potential of its BMI implants in restoring physical mobility to people with paralysis by interpreting brain signals and using them to stimulate nerves and muscles in the body.

However, this is a bold aim and the company added that the methods used with Pager wouldn’t be transferable to people with paralysis.

“MindPong is an initial demonstration of the potential capabilities of the N1 Link,” Neuralink said. “It’s important to remember that it is a small slice of what our device is intended to achieve.”

Lisa Ardill was careers editor at Silicon Republic until June 2021