Neuralink has just presented the latest version of its brain-machine interface through a macaque playing Pong with its mind. The demo gives us a fascinating look at the current state of technology, which, among other things, could offer paralyzed people a way to regain control of their limbs.
Previous research has shown how brain-machine interfaces can be used to control drones, prostheses, and other computer tablets by recording and relaying the user’s brain activity that signals their intentions. This very impressive work, however, required that these brain implants be attached to computer systems to provide the necessary bandwidth for the signals to be transmitted.
The objective of Neuralink, in concrete terms, is to develop the same thing, but in a completely wireless version.
If successful, such technology could be used to treat brain disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy and depression. These interfaces could also be used in conjunction with assistive devices, making it possible to control artificial limbs by thinking for amputees, or offer paralyzed people a way to regain control of their limbs.
Play Pong by Thought
Neuralink’s solution, called Link, uses a chip made up of several hundred electrodes that, when implanted in the brain, records a subject’s neuronal activity. For his last demonstration, two of these electrode arrays were implanted in the motor cortex of a macaque named Pager to record its neural activity while playing games.
First, Pager had to move a token on different squares using a joystick with his hand (what he ingests in the video is a treat).
The data was relayed every 25 milliseconds via Bluetooth to decoding software which took charge of building a model of the relationship between certain neural patterns and desired pager movements. Roughly, some “spikes” correlated with upward movement of the joystick, while other patterns indicated downward movement.
Eventually, the decoding software, through machine learning, was able to predict the direction and speed of movement simply based on the macaque’s brain activity.
Researchers then did the same with Pong, one of the first arcade video games released by Atari in 1972. As you can see below, Pager no longer even needs to use the joystick to move. his “virtual racket” from top to bottom. In reality, he controls his movements by thought.
Although impressive, this new demonstration is still only a springboard for the company, and some challenges still have to be met. Ultimately, a paralyzed person will, for example, be unable to move the joystick initially to help build the pattern of brain activity based on their intentions.