Neuralink, the secretive neuroscience startup co-founded by Elon Musk, has been even more quiet than usual these days. That is, until this week when it released a YouTube video of a monkey appearing to play the classic video game Pong with its mind.
The video stars Pager, a 9-year-old macaque monkey who had a Neuralink implanted in either side of his brain roughly six weeks prior, according to the narrator. And apparently, he loves Pong.
Before he learned how to play the game with his mind, though, researchers first conditioned him to use a joystick, rewarding him with “a tasty banana smoothie” through a straw whenever he moved an on-screen cursor to certain lit-up squares on a grid.
While he was manoeuvring the joystick and happily slurping up his smoothie, the Neuralink devices in his brain recorded his brain activity, monitoring more than 2,000 electrodes implanted in the region of Pager’s motor cortex that controls hand and arm movements. Researchers could also interface with the devices in real-time by pairing their phones via Bluetooth.
That Neuralink data was then fed into a “decoder algorithm” to train it to predict Pager’s intended hand movements in real-time based on which neurons were firing. Following a short calibration period, the decoder understood Pager’s neural patterns well enough that the joystick was no longer needed. The narrator says that even with it disconnected, Pager continues to move the cursor around using only his mind. He then appears to play a game of so-called MindPong with no joystick in sight.
“A monkey is literally playing a video game telepathically using a brain chip!!” Musk said in a tweet sharing the video Thursday.
More than four million people have watched it since then, and it’s currently among the top 10 trending videos on YouTube. If you’re interested, Neuralink also shared a video showing what the raw data behind Pager’s neural activity looks like while he’s busy playing.
Musk went on to discuss future plans for Neuralink’s devices in a series of tweets, echoing the video’s narrator that the ultimate goal for this technology is to enable people with paralysis to operate their computer or phone via their mind.
The initial versions of the device “will enable someone with paralysis to use a smartphone with their mind faster than someone using thumbs,” Musk wrote. “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.”
Back in August, Neuralink showed a live demo of the Neuralink implant in action, though on pigs rather than monkeys.
“It’s like a Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires,” Musk said at the time.
Musk has proposed a bevy of science fiction-esque uses for Neuralink’s research since launching the company in 2017. They’ve ranged from more practical examples like treating brain disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, and depression and the aforementioned mobility assistance for paralysed people, to the fantastical, i.e. boosting our puny human brain functions so we can happily coexist with our eventual AI overlords.
Before any of that can happen, though, Neuralink will need to jump through a series of regulatory hoops if it ever wants the chance to become a medical device approved for human use. In July, Musk announced that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration designated Neuralink a “breakthrough device,” a status that should fast-track its federal review process. As much as it can, at least, given the government’s glacial pace for these kinds of things. It could still be years or even decades before we see any significant progress on the legal front.
In the meantime, maybe Neuralink can teach Pager to play a few more games with his mind. I think they’re missing a huge opportunity if the next one isn’t something from the Donkey Kong series. Or even better: Ape Escape.