Elon Musk has made a monkey play Pong telepathically. Here’s what it means for humanity

By Jack Ramage

Published Apr 22, 2021 at 11:42 AM

Reading time: 3 minutes

Forget Space X or Hyperloop, Elon Musk’s ambitious neurotechnology project has just made a breakthrough akin to your wildest sci-fi fantasy: a monkey is now able to play Pong solely with its mind. The demonstration by the company Neuralink is a prime example of a brain-machine interface in action. With human trials set to start later this year, what does this mean for humanity as we know it?

What is Neuralink?

Last year, the company successfully implanted a chip into a pig’s brain to measure visual information and sensory data from its snout. Last month, the company successfully implanted a chip into a monkey’s brain so it could play Pong—the two-dimensional sports game that simulates table tennis—using only its mind. It’s safe to say Neuralink is making (brain) waves within the emerging neurotechnology industry.

It all started with a coin-sized disc, called a ‘link’, which is implanted by a precision surgical robot into the monkey’s brain, connecting thousands of micro threads from the chip to neurons responsible for controlling motion. The nine-year-old monkey called Pager—presumably unaware that it’s the centrepiece of a scientific breakthrough and internet fame—had two Neurolink devices put on each side of his brain six weeks before. Pager was then taught to use a joystick to move a cursor to targets on a screen in exchange for a banana smoothie. What could possibly go wrong, right?

The ‘link’ device then records the monkey’s neuron activity while he interacts with the joystick and cursor. The narrator of the video explains this is only possible due to thousands of tiny wires implanted into Pager’s motor cortex—the part of the brain that coordinates hand and arm movements. The data is then fed into a decoder algorithm, predicting Pager’s intended hand movements in real-time.

Neuralink claims that once the decoder is calibrated, the monkey is free to control the cursor without relying on the joystick—essentially controlling the cursor with only its mind. The joystick is then deactivated as the video shows the monkey playing Pong with, and only with, its mind. It’s proof of the astonishing scientific advances we humans can achieve—Pager is able to play Pong telepathically with more accuracy than I ever could on my 2008 flip phone.

So, what does this mean for humanity and why should we care?

To put it bluntly, it’s too early to tell. However, there is reason to believe we’re witnessing the emergence of a new technology that could have a serious impact on society. Bearing in mind that this is mostly hypothetical, aside from Pager’s ability to play a video game telepathically, which is now objective science—let’s start with the positives.

Neuralink claims that the technology could assist people who are paralysed from brain or spinal injuries, giving them the ability to control computerised devices with their minds—similar to how Pager was able to control a cursor with just his brain. If all goes to plan, it would be an invaluable way for paraplegics, quadriplegics or victims of strokes to live a free and autonomous life. The ‘link’ chip might also be able to connect with other technology, for instance, making prosthetic limbs feel ‘real’.

This experiment’s success also touches upon how the technology could, theoretically, be a valuable treatment for psychological and neurological conditions like depression or addiction—even claiming to restore senses for those who are blind or deaf. This is all very up there but there’s reason to be cautiously optimistic of how developments in neurotechnology could drastically change medicine as we know it, and for the good.

It’s worth noting the positives go beyond therapeutic value too. The technology could offer a faster way of interacting with computers—we wouldn’t be limited to the QWERTY keyboard anymore, instead, we’d be able to send messages at the speed of thought. Granted, this would make being ghosted by your Tinder match that extra bit painful.

Scientists have also theorised that the technology could connect brains to the cloud. This would essentially change human intelligence as we know it—an individual’s ‘native’ intelligence could be augmented by accessing cloud-based artificial intelligence. It sounds whacky now but imagine explaining Google to someone in the early 90s.

But, can it be hacked?

Alright, I’m going to burst the positive bubble here: criminals have, and most likely always will adapt to new technology in order to exploit the vulnerable. It’s happened with credit cards, with the internet, and it even happened with COVID-19—there’s no reason to believe that once this technology is mainstream, it’ll be invincible to those with bad intentions.

Scientists warn that without “bulletproof security”, hackers could access implanted chips, causing malfunctions or misdirections of their actions. Similar to that Wallace and Gromit episode where an evil penguin hacked the robotic trousers to steal from a bank, staging Wallace in the process—only with much darker consequences. A device vulnerable to such actions could be fatal for the disabled individuals the technology serves to benefit.

It’s an ethical and philosophical issue that still plagues the neurotechnology field to this day. And if that wasn’t complicated enough, some have raised concerns that developments in AI working through a brain-machine interface could take control of the host’s brain through nanotechnology. The very man himself, Elon Musk, has previously warned that AI poses an existential threat to humanity—claiming AI is set to overtake humans in less than five years.

It’s a tricky ethical minefield to manoeuvre. And if animal testing wasn’t unethical enough, human trials are set to start at the beginning of this year. Scientists have warned that we must devote enough time and effort to building safeguards. However, if implemented safely, the technology could bring enormous positives to society.

As for me: I’m a writer, not a scientist, there’s little value I can add to the discussion other than what I’ve already said. I guess it’s a waiting game—if in twenty years I can order a pizza just by thinking (and my brain isn’t hacked by cybercriminals), I’ll be happy knowing science has done its job.

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