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Following many months of controversy surrounding the thus far rather secretive Elon Musk venture, Neuralink, the company has run a 9-minute live broadcast on X with the first patient who received one of its implants — and the reveal was more than promising.

29-year-old Noland Arbaugh suffered a broken spine in a diving accident eight years ago, leaving him quadriplegic: completely paralysed from the neck down. The consequences and resultant dependence on others for just about everything need not be explained here, of course, so every invention that permits the patient to communicate with a machine is a life-changer.

Neuralink’s stated goal is “creating a general-purpose, high-bandwidth interface to the brain”, which would allow all humans to communicate with computers directly via thoughts rather than typing or talking.

That said, the obvious candidates for early testing are those most in need of such a technology to return to doing most basic things in life.

In the long run, it may even be possible to use this innovation to fully restore motor function in paralysed patients one day, as per Elon Musk’s comment under the video:

As of now, however, even doing as little as being able to control a laptop is an enormous improvement in the quality of everyday life.

Using the Force

So, how does it work? What does it feel like? Noland explained that it’s like using the Force in Star Wars movies — you just command the cursor to move where you want it to wirelessly, with nothing else but your thoughts (and no cables sticking out of your head, like in the past).

The process is a bit more complex, of course, and initially involves visualising movement and imagining what you would do to make the cursor move to the place you want, while the implant learns to translate your intent into motion on the screen.

But once it’s been dialled in, it becomes intuitive. So intuitive, in fact, that once he got his implant under control, he stayed up for 8 hours straight playing Civilisation VI while lying in his bed.

Civilization VI
Sid Meier’s Civilization VI / Image credit: Steam

He’s also playing online chess with other players on the internet and is learning Japanese and French.

Long sessions at the computer were previously difficult, since lack of motion for many hours causes pressure sores and requires assistance from family to move his body around even in the wheelchair.

Right now, however, he can stay comfortably in bed, relying on himself to control the computer with nothing but his thoughts. The only limitation is the implant’s battery, which needs to be recharged periodically.

He admits that not everything was smooth sailing and it’s still a work in progress, but the impact it has had on his life is profound:

“I would say that we have run into some issues. I don’t want people to think that it is the end of the journey, there’s still a lot of work to be done, but it has already changed my life.”

Noland Arbaugh

Even the initial surgery, while invasive, went well and Noland was out of hospital after just one day.

The same cannot, probably, be said of the monkeys Neuralink is using to develop another implant: one whose aim is restoring sight.

Monkeys see again?

Following the broadcast Elon went on to introduce another product, called Blindsight, dedicated to patients who had either lost their sight or were born blind.

As he explained in a short video clip attached to the post, “the visual part of the cortex is still there”, so that even in extreme cases of blindness at birth, sight may eventually be restored.

The implant is currently being tested in monkeys and, per Musk, “is already working”. The billionaire took the opportunity to jab back at his critics, after allegations of animal abuse and numerous deaths of test subjects (monkeys) cast shadow on Neuralink’s practices.

That said, if the early results are anything to go by, then even if that happens occasionally, it is perhaps a small price to pay for the life-changing effects the company’s technology may have on humans.

Featured Image Credit: Neuralink

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Vulcan Post aims to be the knowledge hub of Singapore and Malaysia.

© 2021 GRVTY Media Pte. Ltd.
(UEN 201431998C.)