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Elon Musk’s Neuralink has this monkey playing pong like an Atari pro

The program uses implanted brian chips to deliver seemingly telekinetic powers and the company hopes to eventually use these capabilities to assist people who are paralyzed.

Image: Neuralink/YouTube

Cyborgs granted wizard powers via implanted neural brain chips could soon leap from the pages of pulp to our increasingly digitally enhanced base reality. Elon Musk’s company Neuralink is focused on using implanted brian chips to one day assist disabled and paralyzed people. Last year, an early demo illustrated these capabilities using pigs and spiking “snout boops” to much fanfare and a new Neuralink video shows an implant-enhanced monkey playing Pong with only its mind.

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On Thursday, the Neuralink YouTube channel released a video that begins with a monkey perched in front of small apparatus that includes a monitor, small forward-facing straw and a remote control joystick. The narrator explains that the star of the show is a 9-year-old macaque named Pager who had “a Neuralink placed in each side of his brain about six weeks ago.”

Next, Pager proceeds to put its mouth on the small metal tube while manually operating the joystick to control the video game shown on the monitor.

“He’s learned to interact with the computer for a tasty banana smoothie, delivered through a straw,” the narrator said, referencing the material being delivered through the metal tube beneath the monitor.

The “links,” which are implanted in Pager’s motor cortex, record activity using more than 2,000 electrodes, the narrator said, adding that “neurons in this region modulate their activity with intended hand movement.”

Using this array of sensors and feeding neural activity through a “decoder algorithm,” the team is able to predict the monkey’s “intended hand movements in real time,” the narrator said. By predicting Pager’s intended joystick movement the team is consequently able to predict the monkey’s gameplay.

Initially, the team calibrates the algorithm as the monkey manually interacts with the game using the joystick and streams these neural firing data to a computer in real time and models “the relationship between patterns of neural activity and the different joystick movements they produce” to calibrate the decoder algorithm, the narrator said.

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Next, Pager is shown manually controlling the joystick as the cursor moves on the screen even though the cord connecting the joystick to the gaming system is disconnected. As the narrator explains, this is possible because the team can use the linked decoder output to manipulate the cursor after the decoder has been calibrated for a “few minutes.”

“Pager still moves the joystick out of habit, but as you can see, it’s unplugged. He’s controlling the cursor entirely with decoded neural activity,” the narrator said.

Next, the video shows Pager playing Pong on-screen with the joystick entirely removed from the apparatus. In the end, Pager is rewarded with a banana for his efforts.


Pager is rewarded with a banana for his efforts.

Image: Neuralink/YouTube

While the videos have demonstrated use in swine and monkeys, the company hopes to use these capabilities to assist paralyzed humans in the future.

“Our goal is to enable a person with paralysis to use a computer or phone with their brain activity alone. Because they wouldn’t be able to move a joystick, they would calibrate the decoder by imagining hand movements to targets,” the narrator said.

As part of this goal, Neuralink hopes to first “give people with paralysis their digital freedom back,” according to a company blog post, and this includes communicating “more easily via text, to follow their curiosity on the web, to express their creativity through photography and art, and, yes, to play video games.”

Next, the company said it intends to use these capabilities to “help improve the lives of those with neurological disorders and disabilities in other ways” such as potentially restoring “physical mobility.” 

“To achieve this, we’d use the Link to read signals in the brain and use them to stimulate nerves and muscles in the body, thereby allowing the person to once again control their own limbs,” the post said.

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