On Tuesday, Elon Musk’s mind-melding brain-computer interface venture issued a lengthy statement pushing back against recent criticism from animal rights groups claiming the company’s experiments on monkeys led to “extreme suffering,” and more than a dozen deaths.
“Recent articles have raised questions around Neuralink’s use of research animals at the University of California, Davis Primate Centre,” Neuralink said. “It is important to note that these accusations come from people who oppose any use of animals in research.”
The company went on to defend its practices, claiming animal testing was ethically required for all novel medical devices prior to human trials. Though human Neuralink trials likely won’t occur for some time, recent hiring reports suggest the company is definitely moving in that direction. Neuralink says it has yet to receive a single citation from the U.S. Department of Agriculture over its treatment of animals.
“At Neuralink, we are absolutely committed to working with animals in the most humane and ethical way possible.”
Neuralink’s statement comes less than one week after an animal rights group called Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine publicized a complaint filed with the US Department of Agriculture. That complaint, which at times read like a dystopian sci-fi version of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, provides horrifying, gruesome details of monkeys allegedly implanted with Neuralink devices at a University of California, Davis site between 2017 and 2020.
As the New York Post notes, some of the monkeys equipped with the device allegedly experienced extreme vomiting and exhaustion while others, overcome by stress, allegedly mutilated themselves (Neuralink now claims these lost fingers could have resulted from “conflicts with other monkeys.”) Another monkey reportedly developed a skin infection after having Neuralink’s device drilled into its head. In all three of those cases, the monkeys were allegedly euthanised.
“The documents reveal that monkeys had their brains mutilated in shoddy experiments and were left to suffer and die,” PCRM Research Coordinators Beckham said in an interview with Futurism. “It’s no mystery why Elon Musk and the university want to keep photos and videos of this horrific abuse hidden from the public.”
Neuralink spoke directly to the dying monkey accusations in its statement, claiming it had first performed its surgeries on cadavers before moving on to “terminal procedures” where live test subjects are euthanised following surgery. According to Neuralink, those monkeys are deemed fit for surgery by a veterinarian but may have had pre-conditions that could impact their quality of life. The company refuted the 15 death figure, claiming instead a total of eight monkeys were euthanised at the UC Davis test site, with four of those deaths possibly originating from infections associated with the Neuralink device. Neuralink went on to offload some of the blame to UC Davis.
“While the facilities and care at UC Davis did and continue to meet federally mandated standards, we absolutely wanted to improve upon these standards as we transitioned animals to our in-house facilities,” the company said.
Neuralink was founded in 2016 with the near-term goal of developing an implantable microchip that could use electrodes to theoretically treat a variety of neurological diseases, including paralysis. Though focused primarily on medical applications, for now, Musk has made lofty claims about Neuralink’s future potential, even going as far as to argue the device could enhance human intelligence and act as a bulwark against artificial intelligence overlords. Think singularity, but with bloodier scalps.
If you can’t beat em, join em— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 9, 2020
Neuralink mission statement
Neuralink gained its fair share of internet fame last year when it released a video allegedly demonstrating how ipits device had taught a monkey to play a Pong-like video game using only its mind. The video admittedly looks impressive until you realise scientists have used brain-controlled chips to teach monkeys how to game for over two decades.
“Brain-control of computer cursors by monkeys is not new,” University of Newcastle professor Andrew Jackson told Insider at the time.
Neuralink isn’t the only one betting big on brain-computer interfaces. Small firms are experimenting with multiple variations of the tech in both medical and consumer contexts. Acumen Research expects the global brain-computer interface market as a whole could reach a hefty valuation of $US3.48 ($5) billion by 2027.
Still, there’s a big difference between these tamer, more incremental gains as medical devices, and Musk’s more sci-fi-tinged, transhumanist rhetoric. That feasibility gap has some experts, like University of Pennsylvania Professor of Medical Ethics and Health Policy Anna Wexler sceptical.
“What concerns me in the near term are the potentially false claims,” Wexler said in an interview with Observer last year. “Neuralink’s employees are scientists and engineers working on developing what appears to be a legitimate device for medical purposes. Yet, the company’s co-founder is fond of making grandiose and bombastic claims about the potential for that same technology to cure all diseases and allow humans to merge with AI.”
Engaging in potentially deadly and cruel animal research to develop life-altering medical devices for humans who need it is one thing, but those same tactics start looking significantly more sadistic if they’re done in the service of a vaporware product built on false promises and podcast promotions.