What Neuralink’s 1,500 botched animal testing means for the brain chip company’s upcoming human trials

By Malavika Pradeep

Published Dec 6, 2022 at 02:15 PM

Reading time: 5 minutes

On Wednesday 30 November 2022, Technoking Elon Musk announced that he expects a wireless brain chip, developed by his health tech company Neuralink, to begin human trials in the next six months. “We want to be extremely careful and certain that it will work well before putting a device into a human,” the billionaire said during a presentation, adding that he plans to get one implanted into himself.

“The progress at first, particularly as it applies to humans, will seem perhaps agonisingly slow, but we are doing all of the things to bring it to scale in parallel,” Musk continued. “So, in theory, progress should be exponential.”

Well, as it turns out, Musk’s quest for progress has been so exponential that it has come at the cost of 1,500 animals involved in a series of botched experiments. According to a recent report by Reuters, Neuralink is now under federal investigation for animal-welfare violations amid internal staff complaints that the company’s animal testing is being rushed—causing needless suffering and deaths.

Neuralink’s history of fanciful claims and impossible deadlines

Co-founded by Musk in 2016, Neuralink has been hailed as one of the top neurotechnology companies seeking to merge human consciousness with AI—by developing a brain implant that would allow a computer to translate a person’s thoughts into actions. Simply put, with the potential of both recording our brain activity and stimulating it, we could someday type or control a joystick by just thinking about it and vice versa.

After the microchip was successfully implanted into a nine-year-old Macaque called Pager—in turn allowing it to play the classic Atari game Pong using only its mind—Musk promised that the technology “will enable someone with paralysis to use a smartphone with their mind faster than someone using thumbs.”

At the Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council Summit in December 2021, the world’s richest man explained that Neuralink could “restore full-body functionality,” including movement and verbal communication, in people with severe spinal cord injuries like tetraplegics and quadriplegics. He also claimed it could be used to better study and treat neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

However, Musk has also made some fanciful statements about the neural interface in question, which were later subjected to criticism from experts. In 2020, the billionaire said the technology can help people “save and replay memories” like in Black Mirror, or even telepathically summon their car.

During his 2019 appearance on the Artificial Intelligence podcast with host Lex Fridman, he claimed that Neuralink can “solve a lot of brain-related diseases” and went on to list autism and schizophrenia as examples. As noted by Business Insider, autism is classified as a developmental disorder rather than a disease, and the World Health Organization (WHO) describes schizophrenia as a mental disorder.

Essentially, Musk links his claims about Neuralink to humanity’s innate fear of AI advancements. He told the Artificial Intelligence podcast that the company was intended to address the existential risk associated with digital superintelligence. “We will not be able to be smarter than a digital supercomputer, so, therefore, if you cannot beat ‘em, join ‘em,” he stated.

It’s worth noting that Neuralink is not the only company in the pursuit of brain-machine interface (BMI) or brain-computer interface (BCI) technology. While Synchron Medical has achieved a major milestone by implanting its device in a patient in the US for the first time, BlackRock Neurotech has already completed the said trials and is recruiting for others, like one experiment to see if a computer interface can control human speech. That being said, the only factor that separates Neuralink from these startups is the goal of mass production—which is evidently running behind schedule.

In 2019, Musk predicted that the brain chip would be implanted into a human skull by 2020. Then, in late 2021, he hoped to kick off human trials in 2022. Having repeatedly missed internal deadlines to gain FDA approval for the trials, the billionaire reportedly approached competitor Synchron Medical about a potential investment after he expressed frustration to Neuralink employees about their slow progress.

Now, a Reuters investigation has detailed the shocking toll Musk’s history of overpromising has taken on the animals involved in clinical experiments—all the while the company waits for approval to start human trials.

Federal probe and the regulatory way forward

In February 2022, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) filed administrative action with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) against Neuralink and the University of California, Davis—which helped the company conduct brain-computing experiments on primates. According to PCRM advocacy coordinator Jeremy Beckham at the time, the university’s records proved that 15 out of 23 monkeys have died or were euthanised as a result of the research.

On the same day that Neuralink dropped the viral video of Pager playing Pong, PETA also released a statement that 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.”

As of 5 December, Reuters has reported that Neuralink is facing a federal probe that was opened in recent months by the USDA’s Inspector General at the request of a federal prosecutor. “The investigation has come at a time of growing employee dissent about Neuralink’s animal testing, including complaints that pressure from CEO Musk to accelerate development has resulted in botched experiments,” the publication noted.

According to the records, Neuralink has killed about 1,500 animals—including more than 280 sheep, pigs, and monkeys—following experiments since 2018. Sources that spoke to Reuters also mentioned that this figure is a rough estimate given how the company “does not keep precise records on the number of animals tested and killed.”

Now, many companies routinely use animals in experiments to advance human health care, and the subjects are also typically killed after the trial so that they can be examined post-mortem for research purposes. But in Neuralink’s case, employees have stated that the number of animal deaths is “higher than it needs to be for reasons related to Musk’s demands to speed [up] research.”

After reviewing company discussions and documents spanning several years, along with employee interviews, Reuters identified four experiments involving 86 pigs and two monkeys that were marred in recent years by human errors. “The mistakes weakened the experiments’ research value and required the tests to be repeated, leading to more animals being killed,” the publication continued, adding how one employee vented to colleagues that the company’s animal experiments are basically “hack jobs.”

“The rushed schedule, the employee wrote, resulted in under-prepared and over-stressed staffers scrambling to meet deadlines and making last-minute changes before surgeries, raising risks to the animals.”

Reuters further noted that several employees have raised concerns internally, and some have even left Neuralink due to concerns about how the animals were being treated. Although staff advocated for a more traditional testing approach—in which they would test one element at a time in a study and draw relevant conclusions before moving on to other experiments—they noted that Neuralink essentially launches tests in quick succession before fixing issues in earlier tests or drawing complete conclusions. Now imagine this tactic being deployed in human trials.

The investigation also shed light on Musk’s unappealing managerial style and how he fostered a “pressure-cooker environment” at the neurotechnology company. On several occasions, the CEO has allegedly told employees to “imagine they had a bomb strapped to their heads in an effort to get them to move faster.” After Musk described Neuralink’s approach to surgeries as “confirmatory, not exploratory,” company researchers were also instructed to purge the word “exploratory” from study titles and avoid using it in the future.

In all, Neuralink’s animal testing phase has raised questions about the quality of the resulting data. The federal investigation is also bound to delay the company’s plans for human trials and add to the growing list of challenges Musk is currently facing with his recent acquisition of Twitter, delays at SpaceX, and sinking of Tesla shares among production slowdown rumours.

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