This Friday, at 3 p.m. Pacific Time, Elon Musk will unveil mind-blowing, game-changing results from Neuralink, his much-hyped and hugely secretive brain-implants startup.
If all goes according to plan, that is.
Then again, it could be like the time Musk claimed to have developed a super strong Tesla truck, and to demonstrate its strength got an engineer to throw a steel ball at it, which promptly smashed a window. Famously, he did it again, with the same result.
Musk and his acolytes have claimed that his Brain Machine Interface (BMI) technology could help the disabled walk, those with paralysis control phones with their thoughts, and the addicted and depressed to recover mental wellness.
In an April 2017 interview with Wait but Why, Musk went as far as to say that the company was interested in treating brain disorders and, within the next decade, enabling telepathy through neural implants.
His supporters hope that the billions of dollars Musk is pouring into Neuralink may be a step on the path to enable humanity to one day fulfill one of the core goals of the larger “transhumanist” movement by allowing humans to attain mental and physical superpowers and transcend the imperfect operating system we were born with—aka the body.
Musk, the tech showman extraordinaire, has certainly not sought to damp down the feverish excitement around Friday’s Neuralink event, which, like anything he does, generates buzz in some corners of the internet. Indeed, he’s used his Twitter account to stoke the frenzy.
When one user asked if the implant could “re-train part of the brain” linked to depression and addiction, Musk retweeted the question and replied, “For sure. This is both great & terrifying.”
“It will blow ur mind haha,” he wrote in one post with another promising, “Will show neurons firing in real-time on August 28th.”
It has his base fired up, even if some Ph.D. students are not that impressed.
However, an intriguing new report from STAT News, which says it interviewed four former employees, says the Neuralink project, based in Fremont, California, has “a chaotic internal culture” and has been plagued by conflict, because Musk’s “rushed timelines” and “move fast and break things” attitude have clashed with the more patient and painstaking approach of career scientists.
The conflict between mechanical engineers and academic neuroscientists has created a “pressure cooker” atmosphere within the company, STAT News says, adding that many key figures have left the project. The company is reportedly now down to just two of its eight original founding scientists.
As further evidence of what it characterizes as Musk’s haste, STAT News reports Neuralink has even discussed the idea of potentially bypassing U.S. regulations by starting BMI human studies in China or Russia. The site quotes the testimony of “two former employees,” who are not named, as the sourcing on this ethically troubling idea.
Neuralink’s demanding timelines have “pushed employees to forgo the slow, incremental approaches typical in the field in favor of running experiments they aren’t yet ready for,” STAT reports.
In 2017, the report states, “the company pushed forward with an effort to implant 10,000 electrodes into the brains of sheep in one surgical procedure, according to a former employee, instead of first trying steps such as implanting a smaller number of electrodes. The experiment failed.”
The fate of the sheep is not disclosed.
Were it not for the fact that Musk has revolutionized space travel, invented an electric car brand that came from nothing to be valued at more than Toyota, and is—this month at least—the fifth richest man in the world, it would be easy to dismiss his vision for Neuralink as just one more example of a tech bro with a god complex.
But Musk may yet pull something extraordinary out of the bag; for example, Neuralink has previously said that it aims to enable people who are paralyzed to operate smartphones and robotic limbs with their thoughts, before ultimately augmenting humans with artificial intelligence. Musk on Twitter mused on this prospect as “AI symbiosis while u wait.”
Industry insiders suspect, however, that the biggest breakthrough that might realistically be announced Friday is that human testing is underway. This would mark a huge step forward for the Neuralink project.
Neuralink responded to STAT News, saying many of its claims were inaccurate and urging it to wait for the demonstration on Aug. 28 before publishing its story or risk looking “foolish.”
The Daily Beast has contacted Neuralink for comment and is awaiting a reply.