Neuralink, a neurotechnology company co-founded by Elon Musk in 2016, has unveiled its latest breakthrough: a monkey that can play Pong with its brain.
In the first half of the video above (via The Guardian), the monkey in question, a male macaque named Pager, manipulates objects on a monitor using a joystick, motivated to continue playing by the flow of a banana smoothie. This, according to the narrator, is actually part of the calibration process, which mathematically models "the relationship between patterns of neural activity and the different joystick movements they produce."
Later on, the joystick is unplugged, yet this doesn't appear to impede Pager, who continues his play (and smoothie) uninterrupted. After that he moves up to Pong, apparently his favorite videogame, and even with the joystick completely removed Pager is a much better player than I ever was.
We actually took a look at Neuralink in March, saying that the interfaces it's working on "could revolutionize the way we live if we can figure out what to do with them." Cyborg monkeys may not seem like the most practical direction to take things (and could also conceivably stir up some unpleasant memories for System Shock 2 fans) but it's clearly a step along the way, and not the destination in mind.
"Our goal is to enable a person with paralysis to use a computer or phone with their brain activity alone," the video's narrator says. "Because they wouldn't be able to use a joystick, they would calibrate the decoder by imagining hand movements to targets."
The long-term goals are even more ambitious. "First Neuralink product will enable someone with paralysis to use a smartphone with their mind faster than someone using thumbs," Musk tweeted. "Later versions will be able to shunt signals from Neuralinks in brain to Neuralinks in body motor/sensory neuron clusters, thus enabling, for example, paraplegics to walk again. The device is implanted flush with skull & recharges wirelessly, so you look & feel totally normal."
Musk is known for grandiose ideas that often fizzle in reality, like the dumb truck or the underground tunnels that continue to not impress. There's no guarantee that Neuralink will fare any better, although it certainly seems to be making impressive progress. At the very least, it's a far more worthwhile endeavor.
To his credit, Musk also predicted Pager's imminent internet fame.
Soon our monkey will be on twitch & discord hahaApril 9, 2021
You can read more about Neuralink's work with Pager at neuralink.com.