See other chip implants in the brain – 02/05/2024 – Tech

See other chip implants in the brain – 02/05/2024 – Tech

Competitors shrug off the billionaire’s claims but acknowledge that the attention has helped push the field closer to reality.

Elon Musk’s habit of hyping a new technology, even when he is not a leader in the field, has long irritated his rivals.

This became evident this week when he wrote on X that one of his companies, Neuralink, had managed to implant an electrode in a human brain for the first time. The procedure is a small step toward Musk’s promise of being able to connect brains directly to computers to increase their processing powers and, one day, allow humans to achieve the capabilities of advanced artificial intelligence.

Similar implants have been an essential part of science labs for years. At least three rival startups have managed to insert electrodes and use them to collect and interpret human brain signals.

However, while Musk’s claims receive scorn from rivals, they are also recognized for the attention that has helped propel the industry toward reality. Brain-machine interface technologies are reaching an important inflection point.

Musk has really “put a spotlight on this field and is attracting capital [de risco]”, said Tom Oxley, chief executive of Synchron, which carried out its first human trials in 2019 and raised US$130 million (R$643 million).

Creating a storm of publicity about his ventures, even when there are few details to back up his claims, “is what Elon Musk does better than anyone else,” said Anne Vanhoestenberghe, professor of active implantable medical devices at King’s College London.

“They [Neuralink] Are you ahead? No. Is your technology unique? No, nothing I’ve seen is new,” Vanhoestenberghe said — although she credited Musk’s company for being “very advanced” and “cutting edge” in the field.

Musk has long used his large following on X and in the media as a strategic weapon to attract capital and talent to his ventures. It’s an advantage he has exploited in his attempts to turn his new artificial intelligence company, xAI, into a challenger to OpenAI, despite starting years ago.

Neuralink raised almost US$700 million (R$3.5 billion), much of it from Musk, and counted some of the field’s top brains among its co-founders — although most of the founding team has since left the company, some to start competitors.

However, Musk’s ambitious claims also have a downside. They have led to “a huge burden of exaggerated expectations,” said Yurii Vlasov, a professor in the Grainger College of Engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Musk’s tweets shed light on a technology that many consider fanciful, but which has recently begun to show promising results.

Work on brain-computer interfaces, known as BCI, began in earnest two decades ago but has progressed slowly. After co-founding Neuralink in 2016, Musk promised human trials as early as 2020 but struggled to win approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Advances in materials and manufacturing have brought more refined and smaller electrode arrays, using techniques developed in semiconductor manufacturing. A second area of ​​rapid development has been in the miniaturized electronics needed to amplify and channel brain signals. The latest, most recent breakthroughs have come in the machine learning software needed to decipher brain signals, using them to control a computer cursor or prosthetic limb.

Neuralink’s method involves inserting extremely thin electrode wires into brain tissue with the aim of collecting electrical signals from individual neurons or small groups. The procedure requires removing part of the skull to allow a robotic surgeon, which Musk called a “sewing machine,” to thread the threads.

Neuralink showed videos of monkeys using their implants to play Pong on a computer. However, the effects of having its electrodes next to brain tissue for long periods of time are still unclear.

Other companies and academics have carried out human trials with other techniques and achieved significant achievements in interpreting brain signals, said Thomas Hartung, a professor at Johns Hopkins University in the US who leads an international biocomputing project. He cited a Stanford University team that reported in 2021 how they converted the brain signals of a paralyzed man imagining handwriting into text on a computer.

Other techniques involve trade-offs between the risks of implants, which are known to be invasive, and the quality of the signal collected.

Precision Neuroscience, co-founded by Benjamin Rapoport, a neurosurgeon and one of the founders of Neuralink, makes small incisions in the skull to insert a mesh of microelectrodes that “wrap around” the brain. Although it collects less data than Neuralink’s electrodes, this less invasive technique should still provide enough data to control a prosthetic limb, according to Rapoport. “It’s not individual neurons that control muscle movements,” he added.

Meanwhile, Synchron inserts its sensors into the skull through a vein, in a similar way to implanting a coronary stent — a method it hopes will allow brain implants to become a routine procedure.

The brain signal it collects, although less detailed, must still be strong enough to achieve what Oxley called “product/market fit” — the goal, pursued by all technology startups, where a technology is good enough to produce a useful product. Synchron aims to channel brain signals to control a smartphone or tablet, giving patients with partial paralysis more ways to communicate and control their environment.

These different techniques could lead to a variety of products, said Alex Morgan, partner at Khosla Ventures, which has invested in neurotechnology including Synchron. “This is not a winner-take-all technology,” he said.

Despite significant scientific advances, however, few in the field are willing to predict when the technology will yield useful products. A particular challenge has been interpreting signals collected from the brain, making it difficult to say when the technology will be able to do more than move a computer cursor or activate simple movements of prosthetic limbs, Vlasov said.

In consultation with the FDA, startups working on brain-computer interfaces have converged on a similar goal: developing implants for patients with the most severe forms of paralysis, Rapoport said.

This is far from the kind of mind-enhancing technology dreamed of by Musk. But while Rapoport said that’s far in the future, he added, “I don’t think it’s inconceivable.”

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