Elon Musk’s brain-implant lab, Neuralink, today released video appearing to show something the tech billionaire has been bragging about since 2019: a monkey playing a video game … with its mind.
In the video (and an accompanying one of the Neuralink signal readout, if you’re into that), a rhesus macaque named Pager is shown playing simple games on a screen while sucking on a straw that’s delivering a tasty banana smoothie as a reward.
Pager, at first, uses a joystick to move a dot around a grid, placing it onto squares that light up one by one at random. In the next sequence, he’s still using the joystick — but as the gently British-accented narrator points out, the joystick apparatus is quite clearly unplugged. The implant, we’re told, is transmitting data from the electrical signals his brain emits as he plays. Using the data gathered while Pager was previously using the joystick, the implant and linked software can control the cursor, interpreting what movements the signals were instructing Pager’s hand to make, and sending those instructions straight to the cursor itself.
The video then shows Pager playing a Pong-style game, using more complicated and fluid movements than the cursor dot required. And as someone who played OG Pong at a game museum earlier this year, I can confirm he’s doing pretty well. (OK, fine. He’s better at it than I was.)
The video ends with a recruitment callout, imploring anyone who’s “good at solving hard problems” to hit up Neuralink, even if they’re not in the neurological field.
In an accompanying blog post, the company explains that Pager has a bilateral implant in his motor cortex on both sides of his brain. This allows him to control his MindPong paddles in real time, just by thinking about which way they’re going to move. The goal, the company says, is to be able to give people with paralysis the ability to control cursors using their own neural implants. And then, eventually, this tech could potentially restore mobility to these people by translating those firing neurons into electrical stimulation delivered directly to paralysed nerves and muscles.
We only have Neuralink’s word for it that we should take these results at face value — but Musk did first claim this was possible back at a Neuralink event in 2019 to the apparent surprise of his colleagues onstage. At the same event, he also said they were aiming to put implants in humans in 2020.
Prior to Pager’s results, the last progress Neuralink shared on this front was data from the sensitive snouts of pigs. But macaques are, obviously, much closer to human subjects. So if this is legit, it’s pretty huge.