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A trial of cutting-edge technology has implanted computer chips into the brain of pigs

Jon Lockett, September 1, 2020 7:00PM The Sun

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Screen shot from Elon Musk’s presentation for Neuralink showing a pig named Gertrude who has a coin-sized computer chip in her brain. Picture: YouTube media_cameraScreen shot from Elon Musk’s presentation for Neuralink showing a pig named Gertrude who has a coin-sized computer chip in her brain. Picture: YouTube

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A technology company co-founded by Elon Musk has fitted computer chips into the brains of pigs in a trial that could lead to people being able to control computers with their minds.

The billionaire revealed Neuralink had placed coin-sized implants into three pigs during research to help those with severe spine and brain injuries.

Mr Musk described the animals involved in his experiments as “healthy, happy and indistinguishable* from a normal pig”.

The Tesla and SpaceX founder displayed the startling technology during a demonstration that appeared to be aimed at recruiting* staff.

Mr Musk showed off a prototype* of the device, about the size of a large coin, which had been surgically placed inside several pigs shown in an enclosure behind him.

Musk shows off progress merging brains and machines media_cameraA screen shot from the Neuralink presentation showing Elon Musk holding one of the brain implants. Picture: Neuralink/AFP

He had last month tweeted that Neuralink “will show neurons* firing in real-time” and that is what appears to have happened.

During the presentation Mr Musk showed an animal named Gertrude with one of the brain implants.

While she snuffled around in a pen, YouTube viewers witnessed her brain activity on a large screen.

“We have a healthy and happy pig, initially shy but obviously high energy and, you know, kind of loving life, and she’s had the implant for two months,” Mr Musk told the audience.

He described the chip as “a Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires” during his “Three Little Pigs” demo.

“It goes flush on your skull. I could have a Neuralink right now and you wouldn’t know,” he said before adding: “Maybe I do.”

“The neurons are like wiring, and you sort of need an electronic thing to solve an electronic problem,” he said.

The hi-tech system is made up of a computer chip attached to tiny flexible threads that are stitched into the brain by a robot.

It can then pick up signals in the brain that can be translated into actions, such as moving an arm.

Musk shows off progress merging brains and machines media_cameraThis screen shot from the online Neuralink presentation shows a drawing of the different steps of the implantation of a Neuralink device. Picture: AFP/Neuralink

Mr Musk later took viewers over to an area with three pigs in separate pens, revealing one was not chipped up.

“Dorothy which had an implant that was removed, illustrates that Link can be removed and you will live a healthy life,” he explained.

Another pig had an implant, which Mr Musk showed allowed its brain activity to be displayed on a screen.

“This shows the beats of Link on the screen and you can see each of the spikes from the 1024 electrodes implanted in the pig’s brain,” he said.

“When she touches her snout to the ground, the neurons will fire and that is what makes the sound.”

Elon Musk: Neuralink puts computer implants in pigs

Mr Musk started Neuralink in 2016 but details of the tech it was working on have been kept secret until now.

Neuralink has sought approval from the US Food and Drug Administration* for the project.

During the presentation, Mr Musk was asked about how the technology could be used, including for video games or the ability for a person to summon* their car.

But the 49-year-old and his team maintain the company first wants the chip to assist people who have severe spinal cord injuries with talking, typing and movement using their brain waves.

“I am confident that long term it would be possible to restore someone’s full-body motion,” said Mr Musk.

Although the technology is initially aimed at helping those with brain disorders, he has said a brain-machine interface* is needed in the future to reduce the risk of “existential* threat of AI*”.

During the presentation with the pigs, he called for engineers, coders and those with experience commercialising products to apply to work at Neuralink, adding: “You don’t need to have brain experience.”

This article was first published on The Sun and is republished with permission.

GLOSSARY

  • indistinguishable: unable to be seen as different to something else
  • recruiting: attracting people for jobs
  • prototype: early version of an invention to show how something could work
  • neurons: nerve cells
  • US Food and Drug Administration: US government organisation to protect public health by, for instance, making sure new medicines have been properly tested
  • summon: call to you
  • interface: a point where two systems meet
  • existential: relating to existence and why we exist
  • AI: artificial intelligence; machine learning

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QUICK QUIZ

  1. Why did Elon Musk have pigs at the presentation?
  2. Who will the implants hopefully help first?
  3. Why was Dorothy part of the presentation?
  4. How old is Elon Musk?
  5. What kinds of experts does the company want working on its project?

LISTEN TO THIS STORY

CLASSROOM ACTIVITIES
1. Computer Chip Marvel
Work with a partner and discuss and write what this new chip technology could mean for the following groups of people:

Template for completing computer chip marvel activity media_cameraTemplate for completing computer chip marvel activity

Time: allow 25 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: Design and technologies, Ethical, Critical and creative thinking, Personal and social

2. Extension
Can you see any negatives of this sort of technology being manufactured? Could it be used in the wrong way? What sort of safeguards need to be put in place to ensure it is only used for good?

Time: allow 15 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: Design and technologies, Ethical capabilities, Critical and creative thinking

VCOP ACTIVITY
Down-Level It
When you up-level a sentence, you do things to it to improve it: make it more interesting, or more complex.

But sometimes, when we read something it can be too complex and we don’t understand it very well. You ask someone to explain it to you, they do (in a simpler way) and you think, well why didn’t they just say that?

Go through the article and find a sentence or two that is complex, or hard to read.

Ask an adult what it means, or try and look some of the words up in the glossary.

Once you know what it means, see if you can rewrite it in a simpler way- down-level it.

Make sure you don’t change the meaning of the sentence in any way though.

HAVE YOUR SAY: Would you volunteer to have a computer chip in your brain? Why or why not?
No one-word answers. Use full sentences to explain your thinking. No comments will be published until approved by editors.

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