Here’s my guess: Neuralink will unveil a vision implant at today’s “show and tell”
Elon Musk’s brain-computer interface company Neuralink likes giving progress reports via staged events it livestreams.
Its next event, scheduled for tonight at 6 pm Pacific time, was announced by the company via a brief video invitation in which the words “please join us for show and tell” appeared as if they were being typed in green letters on a screen.
The mysterious message immediately had Neuralink fans guessing what it could mean.
Here at MIT Technology Review we consider such teases an invitation for us to make hard predictions about Neuralink’s future. We rely on our understanding of brain interface research, Neuralink’s capabilities, and, in this case, a bit of information from a tipter.
With that in in mind, I predict Neuralink will announce it is not only reading brains with its electronic interface, but is now writing information into them, something it could demonstrate with a “vision prosthetic” that generates images inside an animal’s brain.
This is possible because electrically stimulating the visual cortex, which is located at the back of your head, produces flashes called “phosphenes”, that can be perceived by an animal or human.
I think the demonstration could work like this: Researchers will send stimulation into a monkey’s visual cortex, creating spots of light arranged into, say, the shape of the letter “A.” Imagine, furthermore, that the monkey is trained to tell you what it sees, for instance by typing the letter A on a keyboard.
This could be the “show” or “tell” that Neuralink hinted at in its announcement.
Such a vision prosthetic is not only cool but also very feasible and easy to make. It’s sure to get oohs from Musk’s fans and followers.
Here’s how it would work
The first demonstration that you could make people see spots of light by stimulating people’s brains dates way back to the 1970s. The idea now is to use more electrodes at once to create more phosphenes, then arrange these into a kind of very crude display, like an old-fashioned ballpark scoreboard.
Recently, a group in Spain, using an implant called the Utah array, which has 96 electrodes, found that that a blind woman could use such a system attached to her brain to make out letters.
In its previous events, Neuralink followed cautiously in the footsteps other neuroscientists. For instance, in 2021, it showed a video of a monkey playing the video game Pong with its brain. However, a human with a brain implant had already played the game 15 years before.
Neuralink has created a new type of brain implant that uses thin wires with electrodes. The wires are inserted into animal brains by a neural “sewing robot” robot that uses optics to avoid blood vessels. It is also wireless and transmits information from under the skull, making it even more practical.
When Musk launched Neuralink in 2017, he outlined plans for “a high-bandwidth, long-lasting, biocompatible, bidirectional” brain implant. He believed that this brain modem, or “wizard’s hat”, would allow humans to keep up with artificial intelligence.
Despite its grandiose visions, Neuralink has been focusing on practical goals, such as helping paralyzed persons control a computer.
That is why earlier demonstrations by the company involved placing electrodes in the motor cortexes of monkeys and pigs’ brains. Researchers can read the movements of animals and transmit them to computers, such as when a monkey used its brain signals for Pong.
After Neuralink’s latest invitation came out, some company fans guessed that it was a signal that today’s demonstration would involve an animal typing with its brain.
This is certainly one possibility. Krishna Shenoy is a Stanford researcher and adviser to Neuralink. He works with human patients who have set world records in brain typing. Shenoy’s human subjects used an older type, the Utah Array.
As far as we know, Neuralink’s implant is not yet being tested in humans, although monkeys can be taught to brain-type, too. In 2016, Shenoy showed that monkeys could use their motor cortex brain signals to move a cursor and transcribe text from the New York Times and Hamlet.
We still believe today’s demonstration will include a vision implant. But how will the monkey be able to “tell” what it sees. The monkey could use its fingers to type or use a second brain implant that allows it to type with its thoughts.
Another reason to believe it’s a vision system is that Musk has claimed brain implants can cure a huge range of diseases. Musk has also hinted at a possible treatment for blindness, revealing that it is possible.
In an interview with Joe Rogan, Musk stated that a Neuralink device could “fix almost everything that is wrong with your brain.” It could also be able to… restore your eyesight, even if your optic nerve has been damaged.
“Really?” Rogan inquired. Musk replied, “Yeah, yeah. Absolutely.”
To treat a neuropsychiatric disorder like depression, electrodes must be inserted deep into the brain. The visual cortex is located near the skull at the back of your brain. It’s easy to reach.
Neuralink could be used to make a vision prosthetic. The electrodes are placed inside the brain near neurons. They don’t use too much electricity, making them safer. The thin wires could reach more places, which could mean more phosphenes and possibly a higher resolution “display ” In studies at the University of Utah years back, researchers covered students’ eyes in a screen with holes. They found with about 700 holes, they could still navigate obstacle courses and even read books.
That means about 700 phosphenes could make a useful form of vision, even though it’s nothing like natural sight, which is incredibly rich, in color, and travels along a million axons from the eye to the brain.
It’s unclear how the demo will go. We don’t expect anything crazy, even though Musk is a drama-magnet. However, Neuralink has been quite conservative in the past. We wouldn’t be surprised if Neuralink brought a pig to the stage, but we wouldn’t expect any live demonstration with a rhesus monkey. They are quite aggressive and animal rights activists have already criticized the company and its university partners for causing harm to animals. There could be a video showing a primate in action, just as with the Pong monkey.
Neuralink could certainly go wild if they so chose. Musk could type live into a monkey’s brain and have the monkey translate his message.
Musk has been acting like an aristocrat, making rash, but true, comments about free speech.
I think it would be quite funny if all Musk tweets were sent by him and then typed by a monkey.
But that is my stretch goal. Everything I know about Neuralink suggests that they will be cautious and limit their implant-driven vision demonstration to a minimal level. The company wants to demonstrate that its device is useful and could help people. They also want to outline a cool future that will draw talented engineers to apply for positions there.
I could be wrong about this. I will be watching the Neuralink event. You should, too. Although Neuralink’s brain-interface demonstrations aren’t new, they are always a great show. We thank the following researchers who shared their knowledge and background on vision implants during the preparation of this item.
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.