Elon Musk’s Neuralink allegedly abuses monkeys as part of its brain implant experiments

By Malavika Pradeep

Published Feb 10, 2022 at 09:44 AM

Reading time: 3 minutes

On 9 April 2021, a three minute video of Pager—a nine-year-old Macaque—went viral on YouTube after it played the classic Atari game Pong using only its mind. Enter Neuralink, a startup dedicated to developing a brain implant that would allow a computer to translate a person’s thoughts into actions. Simply put, someday we could type or control a joystick by just thinking about it and vice versa. It then comes as no surprise that Technoking Elon Musk is at the helm of this venture. It’s also quite understandable why Neuralink employees have spoken up about the company’s relentless pressure, impossible deadlines, overall culture of blame and its missing CEO.

Nevertheless, Musk has his hopes riding on human trials of the implant by the end of 2022. But now it turns out that the startup has been mistreating monkeys in its medical experiments all along, as the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) plans to file administrative action today with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) against Neuralink and the University of California (UC), Davis—which helped the startup conduct brain-computing experiments on primates.

After partnering with the university in 2017, Neuralink’s research into surgical implants has involved at least 23 monkeys to date. According to PCRM research advocacy coordinator Jeremy Beckham, the university’s records prove that 15 of those monkeys have died or were euthanised as a result of the research. When the deal between Neuralink and UC Davis ended in 2020, Beckham told Fortune how the university transferred seven monkeys to the startup. But the whereabouts of the 23rd monkey remains unclear, as the records end abruptly in November 2019.

It’s also worth noting that the PCRM was only able to obtain the said records after filing a separate lawsuit in California Superior Court last May—alleging that the university was withholding them from the group in violation of the California Public Records Act. Despite receiving the animal care files, however, the PCRM believes that the university has withheld videos, photos, and identification numbers of the monkeys that shed crucial light on the fact that they were mistreated.

From the existing records, Beckham noted how one details a monkey “who actually collapsed from exhaustion and suffered from seizures.” The primate’s caretakers then noted that they were videotaping its behaviour to monitor its health. “So we know that these videos and photographs are going to be disturbing, frankly,” he said in the interview with Fortune. “We want to be able to get access to these videos and kind of show people a little bit more of the reality of what it’s like inside this Elon Musk-funded laboratory.”

Beckham also acknowledged that if the PCRM scrutinised other academic institutions researching brain computing that lack high profile deals like Neuralink, it “would find some of the same issues.” At the same time, however, it believes UC Davis has a public obligation to reveal the nature of its work with the startup. “Here you have researchers at UC Davis moving around and operating at the whim of private funding by a billionaire,” Beckham admitted, adding how it raises ethical questions about how such projects are scrutinised in the first place.

When Fortune reached out to several brain-computing experts, everyone explained how the animals involved appear to be healthy—based completely on the public demonstrations that Neuralink has released so far. “For instance, several sources noted that in the widely viewed ‘MonkeyPong’ video, the primate appeared vigorous and coherent,” the outlet went on to note. On the other hand, Beckham and his team who have analysed the animal care records obtained from the university mentioned how they “don’t seem to match up with what we see in the video that Neuralink and their public relations people are choosing to release.”

Today, the medical group urges the USDA to investigate these instances of alleged mistreatment and penalise both Neuralink and UC Davis if the violations are corroborated. According to the complaint, which cites the records obtained, the experiments have also resulted in chronic infections among the monkeys—caused by surgeries, psychological distress and “extreme suffering.”

That being said, this is not the first time Neuralink has experimented on animals. The company has previously implanted wireless technologies into the brains of pigs—which Musk himself described as a “Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires.”

On the same day that Neuralink dropped the viral video of Pager playing Pong, PETA released a statement which read: “The monkey wasn’t fooled by the jungle photo screen, and no one else should be, either. Monkeys in neuroscience experiments are kept constantly thirsty or hungry to coerce them to cooperate and stare at a screen for hours, and when the session is over, they go back into a cage.” The organisation then mentioned how experiments like Neuralink’s are always done “at the expense of animals whose lives have been stolen and nothing has come of it.”

Given how 90 per cent of drugs that successfully pass animal tests fail in their succeeding human ones, questions are being raised about the ineffectiveness of the procedure at large. In many cases, human symptoms have to be stimulated on animals to test medicines—similar to how vervet monkeys have been hooked onto moonshine to treat alcoholism in us humans.

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