Neuralink monkey plays pong
Once considered science fiction, brain implants and research into brain-computer interfaces have made gargantuan strides, with implants helping paralyzed individuals drink beer and letting humans play pong with their minds. Brain implants have become a recurring hot topic in recent years thanks to Elon Musk’s startup, Neuralink, with many following the company’s experimentation on monkeys and pigs with great interest. In a recent video released to YouTube, the company documented its success in using a brain implant to allow a monkey to play pong, once again grabbing the internet’s attention.
In the video, Pager, a 9-year-old macaque monkey, is shown playing pong on a screen without joysticks or physical controls. Previously trained to play pong with a joystick through reinforcement learning with a banana smoothie as a reward, Pager had a Neuralink implant for six weeks prior to the video’s filming, as the implant had to first learn the neuron patterns associated with the hand movements used to control the game. Once the physical controls were removed, Pager’s brain reproduced the same patterns, allowing him to play the game with his mind.
While similar feats have been achieved using human subjects, Pager’s success at playing pong seems to be a big step forward for Neuralink, with Musk talking about big plans for the future of the technology, from enabling paralyzed individuals to tweet faster than their non-paralyzed counterparts, to using systems of implants to enable paraplegics to walk again. Of course, these are all tentative goals, but given Musk’s track record of rapid development, it would not be surprising to see such advancements soon.
Neuralink is not the only startup to investigate the possibility of mainstream implants, although it is certainly the most well-known. Companies like Synchron and Paradromics are also investigating the use of implants — they are, however, taking alternative approaches to invasive, surgically-implanted systems. For instance, Synchron uses electrodes inserted through a vein near the back of the neck — a method that is touted as more stable and robust.
With these startups leading the way, we are moving closer to a future where we are not only connected through our screens but also directly linked through our brains. Whether this is a good or bad thing is up for debate, as there are many ethical considerations that still need to be sorted out, but simply reaching this stage shows how quickly technology has advanced in relatively new and niche fields.