“Telepathy”, the new brain implant created by Neuralink, aims to create brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) that allow devices to connect with the mind using artificial intelligence.

South African multimillionaire Elon Musk announced on January 29 on his social network X that another of his companies, Neuralink, had implanted a brain chip in a person for the first time. His message was as follows: “The first human received a Neuralink implant yesterday and is recovering well. “The initial results show promising detection of neuronal spikes.”

This is a major breakthrough for the company, since until now it had only carried out implants in animals, but it is not the first time that a brain chip has been implanted in a human being, since other companies and universities had already done it previously.

The news has been received with caution, since the experiment has not been published in any scientific journal, it is not known who the recipient of the brain implant is, and it is not possible to verify in any way whether it is true that Neuralink has implanted a brain chip in a person, as well as the related details.

Neuralink’s goal is to create brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) that allow devices to connect with the mind using Artificial Intelligence.

In addition, it is intended not only to send commands from the brain to a computer, but also to send information from a computer to the brain. It is curious that the name given to the brain implant is “Telepathy”.

The company has FDA approval to conduct human clinical trials since May 2023; previously the agency had rejected its attempts as unsafe.

After recruiting volunteers to undergo the brain implant, the company’s intention is to complete a study in May 2024 detailing the evolution of the patients. At the moment the number of participants in the trial and the ailments they suffer from are unknown. The trial data should be published on Clinicaltrials.gov.

David Ezpeleta, neurologist at the Quirónsalud University Hospital in Madrid and vice president of the Spanish Society of Neurology, has stated that “we have to rely on conjecture because we do not have information published in scientific journals. And this is not usual in science.” “Last year, 2023, was prodigal in publications on brain-computer implants in the neurorehabilitation of patients with stroke, ALS and other diseases.”

For him, the need to regulate neurorights arises: “These advances must not only be looked at from the magnifying glass of basic neuroscience and practical clinical neurology, but also from ethics and the field of neurorights.”

In 2022, Neuralink was widely criticized for having ended the lives of 1,500 animals (sheep, pigs and monkeys) after experimenting on them. In 2021, one of these experiments succeeded in getting a monkey to play a video game.

The clinical trial that has just begun in humans will last 6 years and aims to implant a BCI in the brains of several people through robotic surgery in a certain area of the brain. This robot has been created expressly to place the chip, since it is more precise in its insertion than a surgeon, and given the complexity of the maneuver in which the 64 fine threads of the device must be connected.

Other brain implants in humans

Several researchers have already published trials in which brain connections have been established to enable people suffering from ALS or paralysis to move and walk.

In 2023, researchers from the Federal Polytechnic School of Lausanne in Switzerland published an article in the scientific journal Nature, in which they detailed that after implanting a brain-spine interface in a man who had suffered an accident that left him paralyzed, the patient was able to walk again.

The Stentrode study, published in 2023 in JAMA Neurology and conducted between 2019 and 2022, detailed that four ALS patients had been implanted with BCIs and over the course of a year were found to be able to send emails and communicate their care needs using their thoughts.

A team of researchers from the Lausanne University Hospital and University of Lausanne, including Eduardo Marín Moraud, succeeded in enabling a Parkinson’s patient to walk thanks to an implant connecting the brain to the spinal cord. According to Marín Moraud, “when the motive is therapeutic, knowing that putting something in the brain is the only solution for the patient and the probability of infections is relatively low, it is worth trying. It will add a lot to his life. But putting a chip in the brain to measure brain activity and control a robot is a slightly different concept”.

Bioethical assessment

The use of electronic devices connected to the brain in different ways constitutes a therapeutic possibility that can alleviate the serious limitations caused by diseases or as a consequence of serious trauma. Recovering the ability to move, feel, see, hear or communicate are enormous clinical achievements that can provide significant improvements in the quality of life of many patients.

But this does not seem to be the line pursued by the research promoted by Elon Musk with his company Neuralink. Unlike the therapeutic use that can be given to robotics and electronics connected to the human brain, the experiment at hand seeks to hybridize brain activity with the computing capacity of processors, creating a “cybernetic-human hybrid, or “cyborg.”

This would make it possible to overcome the limits that biology imposes on the functioning of our central nervous system, creating an interface that would make it possible to enhance human cognitive capacities and create others that are not human, but cybernetic, in what has been proposed for years by transhumanist currents.

Thus, it would not only be about seeing or hearing better, calculating faster, memorizing much more or accessing infinite sources of data, but this interface would allow reading and writing in the human brain, accessing thought or modifying it through it.

Could a certain mood be programmed from the chips that are inserted in the future? Perhaps the character, the memory registers, the impulses or the way of reasoning itself can be modified? And what will be the purpose of these possibilities? Of course, it does not seem that they are going to contribute to promoting personal freedom, individuality, equality between humans, the right to privacy… in short, respect for human dignity.

Trying to manipulate a cell phone with your thought – it seems that this is one of the intentions of the experiment that concerns us now – is only a first step. The name chosen for this implant, “Telepathy”, seems to indicate the route towards which this type of research is directed: making thoughts stop living exclusively in our brains, that is, making them accessible and manipulable from electronic devices.

The intentions and results of such experiments should be closely monitored and regulated to prevent our suspicions from materializing.

Julio Tudela and Ester Bosch

Bioethics Observatory – Institute of Life Sciences

Catholic University of Valencia

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