Elon Musk’s Neuralink company, purveyors of the experimental N1 brain-computer interface (BCI), announced on Tuesday that it has finally opened enrollment for its first in-human study, dubbed Precise Robotically Implanted Brain-Computer Interface (PRIME, not PRIBCI). The announcement comes nearly a year after the company’s most recent “show and tell” event, four months beyond the timeframe Musk had declared the trials would start, and nearly a month after rival Synchron had already beaten them to market.
Per the company’s announcement, the PRIME study “aims to evaluate the safety of our implant (N1) and surgical robot (R1) and assess the initial functionality of our BCI for enabling people with paralysis to control external devices with their thoughts.” As such, this study is looking primarily for “those who have quadriplegia due to cervical spinal cord injury or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS),” despite Musk’s repeated and unfounded claims that the technology will be useful as vehicle for transhumanistic applications like learning Kung Fu from an SD card, uploading your consciousness to the web and controlling various household electronics with your mind.
Actually, that last one is a real goal of both the company and the technology. BCIs operate as a bridge between the human mind and machines, converting the analog electrical signals of our brains into digital signals that machines understand. The N1 system from Nueralink leverages a high-fidelity Utah Array of hair-thin probes that, unlike Synchron’s Stentrode, must be installed via robotic keyhole surgery (performed by Nerualink’s sewing machine-like R1 robot surgeon). This array will be fitted onto the patient’s motor cortex where it will record and wirelessly transmit electrical impulses produced by the region to an associated app which will interpret them into actionable commands for the computer. “The initial goal of our BCI is to grant people the ability to control a computer cursor or keyboard using their thoughts alone,” the release reads.
Neuralink has been working on the N1 system since 2017, one of the first companies in the industry to begin publicly developing a commercial BCI. However, Neuralink’s efforts were waylaid last year after the company was credibly accused of causing the needless suffering and death of dozens of animal test subjects, which led to both a USDA investigation on animal cruelty charges and instigated the FDA to deny the company’s request to fasttrack human trials. The PRIME study is being conducted under the auspices of the investigational device exemption (IDE), which the FDA awarded Neuralink this past May.