Connect with us


Musk says that Neuralink implants are close to ready for human testing



Enlarge / Elon Musk shows the latest version of his company’s implants.

On Friday, Elon Musk gave an update on what’s probably his third-most prominent company: Neuralink. Neuralink had been pretty low profile (especially in comparison to Tesla and SpaceX) prior to this time last year, which is when Musk first went into detail about the company’s goals and progress. And the goals were striking: a mass-market brain implant that could be installed by a robot via same-day surgery.

With this year’s update, little has changed about the overall plan, but plenty of little details have been tweaked in the intervening 12 months. And progress has been made, in that Musk introduced his audience to a group of pigs who were already carrying what he suggested was version 0.9 of his implants, with human testing set to follow shortly.

Designs on the brain

One of the big differences between this year and last is the overall design of the implant and its supporting hardware. The original goal had been to keep the surgery simple in part by minimizing the size of the hole that needed to be made in the skull. This meant a small-diameter implant that wouldn’t necessarily be placed near the neurons it interacted with and would require a connection to separate hardware placed behind the ear. All of this added to the level of complication and would necessarily require running some wires across the surface of the brain.

Most of that’s been simplified away. For now, rather than attempting to target anything deep in the brain, implants will only target things near the surface of the cerebral cortex, the outermost layer at the front of the brain. A neurosurgeon employed by Neuralink was on hand (in scrubs, as he was last year, just so you knew he was a surgeon) and said that there are lots of motor and sensory processes that route through the cortex and thus can be targeted by these implants. Musk followed up on that by saying that we can “solve” blindness and deafness solely by focusing on the cortex.

As in the old design, roughly 1,000 electrodes will be inserted into the targeted collection of neurons, and those will connect to an implant above the surface of the brain. But in this case, they’ll do so by the shortest route possible, eliminating the need to run the wires across the surface of the brain. The behind-ear hardware is gone as well. Instead, there will be a single implant that spans the skull, essentially replacing part of it.

Musk showed off one of the implants, and it represents a major rethinking. He said it was 23mm across (though he didn’t specific radius or diameter) and about 8mm thick—the latter chosen as a close match to the thickness of human skulls. The device looks like a very thick coin or miniature hockey puck, and it contains all the hardware needed to keep the implant functional. This includes a battery large enough for all-day operation and the hardware needed for wireless inductive charging. There are also support chips, mostly derived from wearables, that control the charging and enable wireless communication via Bluetooth.


But the central feature is still Neuralink’s custom chip designed to identify and transmit patterns of neural activity. Individual neurons, which the electrodes will be listening in on, communicate by firing off a series of what are called “spikes”—short bursts of electrical activity that stand out from the background noise. Musk said that Neuralink’s chip comes programmed with a set of spike templates that match the usual range of behaviors seen in actual neurons. The chip will take the analog electrical activity recorded by the electrodes, convert it to digital data, identify any spikes of activity, and then find the template spike that matches the activity best.

That allows it to transmit a code that identifies the template, making for a huge compression compared to the complicated, noisy neural activity. It’s absolutely necessary for a device that will be communicating via a low-bandwidth interface like Bluetooth.

The chip will also allow the electrodes to be used to stimulate neurons, although Musk didn’t go into the details on this. It presumably takes a bit more power than passively reading their activity, which may limit how much this can be used.

Putting it in place

The team is still counting on a robot to do the hardest parts of the implant, using a microscope to identify and avoid blood vessels when threading electrodes into the brain. The prototype robot that Neuralink showed off last year, which could easily have been mistaken for an interrogation droid, is no more. In its place is a clean, white, very medical-looking design—one with all the tools and pointy bits necessary for putting a hole in someone’s skull kept from view while not in use. While the team is still working on adapting the robot to reach deeper areas in the brain, the initial focus on the cortex makes the robot’s task somewhat easier for now.

Musk promised that the surgery would only take about an hour, wouldn’t require general anesthesia, and the recipient can go home with their implant the same day.

Musk then introduced the first recipients of the current implant design: a group of pigs. Naturally, there was a control animal, who happily waddled out before the camera and ate from its handler’s hand. That was followed by a second pig that had previously had an implant but had since had the device removed. This, Musk emphasized, was important because people might want to upgrade their implants, especially as the company plans on continuing to improve its hardware.

That should have been followed by a pig with a functional implant, but Gertrude was being shy, which left an animal technician exasperated and Musk joking about the perils of live demos. Eventually, she did come out, and Neuralink was able to show that it could listen in on neurons that received signals from sensory cells in the animal’s snout. Yet another pig was brought out that carries two implants; one device was listening in on the animal’s proprioception system, and the team was able to reasonably accurately figure out the position of the animal’s leg.

Next stop: humans?

As he did last year, Musk said that the goal of the presentation was to recruit good people to work at Neuralink, which is currently at roughly 100 employees. But he definitely dropped some hints that things are getting closer to when he would like to start on the marketing. To begin with, he mentioned that Neuralink had gotten a Breakthrough Device designation from the Food and Drug Agency, which handles medical-implant approval. That enables the company to engage in an ongoing dialog with the FDA, which will help it identify the sorts of data it will need to gather in order if Neuralink wants to make sure approval is ultimately granted.

Musk also said that it plans to do initial testing with tetraplegics. That’s following in the footsteps of some earlier work, including people who have successfully used a brain implant to control a robot arm. Getting approval for human experiments with tetraplegics is relatively easy, as there are no other treatments available to them. Musk didn’t indicate when those experiments might start.

So for now, all we have are a few bits of data recorded from freely roaming pigs and not many technical details about how those were obtained. To an extent, that doesn’t represent a lot of obvious progress from last year’s presentation or a lot of progress compared to where the research community already is.

But that really doesn’t capture the situation well. While the field has been able to put a large number of implants into animal’s brains over the years, I don’t recall any that left an animal that was visibly indistinguishable from its non-implanted peers, as these pigs were. And Neuralink’s hardware is designed to be manufactured at scale, unlike the typical production of an academic research lab.


Just as critically, the company has shown plenty of creativity and flexibility. It’s got a solid solution to the problem of compressing the complicated data that its hardware will gather, and the team made some major revisions to its designs compared to a year ago, all of which seem to simplify the implant and the surgery needed to put it in place. And that, within the span of a year, represents significant progress.

That isn’t to say that Neuralink is set for an easy glide to success. There are still an abundance of hard problems and years of safety and efficacy testing in its future. But the update does provide some very real reasons for optimism.

Continue Reading


NASA delays flight of Boeing’s Starliner again, this time for parachutes



Enlarge / Starliner touches down in December 2019 for the first time.

NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

NASA and Boeing announced Wednesday that the first crewed flight of the Starliner spacecraft will now take place no earlier than July 21. This moves the vehicle’s flight, carrying NASA astronauts Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore, from the previously announced timeframe of April.

The manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew program, Steve Stich, said the delay was attributable to the extra time needed to close out the pre-flight review process of Starliner and also due to traffic from other vehicles visiting the space station in June and the first half of July.

“When we look at all the different pieces, most of the work will be complete in April for the flight,” Stich said during a teleconference with reporters. “But there’s one area that’s extending out into the May time frame, and this really has to do with the certification products for the parachute system.”

Boeing has conducted more than 20 tests of its parachute system, including dropping the vehicle from different altitudes to test their deployment sequence and how the parachutes perform in different environments to simulate returning from space. Stich said there are no issues with the parachutes, which are installed on Starliner already. Mostly, it is about reviewing all the tests Boeing has done to ensure the parachutes performed as intended.

“It’s just a matter of going through all that data and looking at the data and making sure we’re really ready to go fly safely,” Stich said.

There is one final test to be completed on the ground, he said, of a parachute subsystem that pulls Starliner’s forward heat shield away and sets up deployment of the drogue and then main parachutes. That test is targeted for May.

The additional time needed to complete the review process of Starliner and its parachute system delayed the vehicle’s launch into June. However, at that time, NASA plans to launch SpaceX’s CRS-28 cargo resupply mission, which will tie up one of the lab’s docking hatches. This supply mission is bringing solar arrays to the station that NASA does not want to delay because it would delay planned spacewalks to install them. The lack of a docking port, therefore, pushed the Starliner flight into the second half of July.

NASA and Boeing must also balance schedules with United Launch Alliance, which is boosting the mission to orbit with its Atlas V rocket. The company presently has the USSF-51 mission scheduled for the Space Force this summer and also needs the Space Launch Complex-41 pad for the debut of its Vulcan rocket in May or later this summer.

This will be the third flight of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft. The vehicle’s debut in December 2019 failed to rendezvous with the International Space Station after multiple issues, including software problems. After fixing these issues, Boeing flew the vehicle on a second test flight in May 2022. Although there were some propulsion issues with this flight, Starliner docked with the space station, setting the stage for a crewed flight test.

After Boeing completes this critical test flight and NASA certifies the vehicle as ready for operational missions, the company will fly approximately once a year to the space station for regular crew rotations. The first of these operational missions is planned for no earlier than the spring of 2024.

Continue Reading


California wants to build more solar farms but needs more power lines



Enlarge / Westlands Solar Park, near the town of Lemoore in the San Joaquin Valley of California, is the largest solar power plant in the United States and could become one of the largest in the world.

Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty

California’s San Joaquin Valley, a strip of land between the Diablo Range and the Sierra Nevada, accounts for a significant portion of the state’s crop production and agricultural revenues. But with the state facing uncertain and uneven water supply due to climate change, some local governments and clean energy advocates hope solar energy installations could provide economic reliability where agriculture falters due to possible water shortages.

In the next two decades, the Valley could accommodate the majority of the state’s estimated buildout of solar energy under a state plan forecasting transmission needs [PDF], adding enough capacity to power 10 million homes as California strives to reach 100 percent clean electricity by 2045. The influx of solar development would come at a time when the historically agriculture-rich valley is coping with new restrictions on groundwater pumping. Growers may need to fallow land. And some clean energy boosters see solar as an ideal alternative land use.

But a significant technological hurdle stands in the way: California needs to plan and build more long-distance power lines to carry all the electricity produced there to different parts of the state, and development can take nearly a decade. Transmission has become a significant tension point for clean energy developers across the US, as the number of project proposals balloons and lines to connect to the grid grow ever longer.

Existing lines are not enough to accommodate the spike in large clean energy installations, planning new transmission has lagged, and regulators have struggled to keep up with studying and processing all the projects looking to hook up to the grid.

“It’s undeniable that we do need major funding for transmission buildout in California, and frankly, the West, to meet our clean energy goals,” said Dian Grueneich, a former commissioner on the California public utility commission. “The issue is where, how much, when, et cetera, … It’s probably the most complex area there is.”

Compared to other regions, California has been relatively proactive in assessing the grid needs of a decarbonized future, said Rob Gramlich, founder of consulting firm Grid Strategies LLC. But there’s still much work to do.

“It’s a systemic problem across the country. We have interconnection queue process problems in most regions,” said Gramlich. “The problem is more acutely felt in any region that is going faster on the energy transition. And California is second to no one on the pace and ambition of its clean energy transition.”

That challenge could cause particular difficulties in regions of California expecting a big scale-up in renewable energy, like the North Coast, where offshore wind developers are planning projects, or areas of the Central Valley eyed by solar companies and facing a potential downturn in the water available for crops.

“Short of water”

In coming years, more land in California once used for agriculture could host solar. In 2014, the state approved the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, an effort to reduce over-pumping from aquifers that had caused land in certain parts of the state to sink. The law requires local water managers to submit plans to the state that demonstrate how they’ll keep industries and people from pulling water out of underground stores more quickly than it can be replenished.

California farmers get water for their crops via a combination of underground supplies and diversions from reservoirs, lakes, and other stores managed by the state and the federal Bureau of Reclamation. The new groundwater regulations, combined with climate change and other environmental regulations, could lead to a 20 percent drop in annual average water supplies in the San Joaquin Valley by 2040, according to a February analysis from the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).

Continue Reading


Healthy adults don’t need annual COVID boosters, WHO advisors say



Enlarge / A vial containing Moderna COVID-19 booster vaccine at a vaccination center.

A vaccine advisory group for the World Health Organization said Tuesday that, at this point, it does not recommend additional, let alone annual COVID-19 booster shots for people at low to medium risk of severe disease. It advised countries to focus on boosting those at high risk—including older people, pregnant people, and those with underlying medical conditions—every six to 12 months for the near- to mid-term.

The new advice contrasts with proposed plans by US Food and Drug Administration, which has suggested treating COVID-19 boosters like annual flu shots for the foreseeable future. That is, agency officials have floated the idea of offering updated formulations each fall, possibly to everyone, including the young and healthy.

In a viewpoint published last May in JAMA, the FDA’s top vaccine regulator, Peter Marks, along with FDA Commissioner Robert Califf and Principal Deputy Commissioner Janet Woodcock, argued that annual COVID booster campaigns in the fall, ahead of winter waves of respiratory infections—such as flu, COVID-19, and RSV—would protect health care systems from becoming overwhelmed. And they specifically addressed the possibility of vaccinating those at low risk.

“The benefit of giving additional COVID-19 booster vaccines to otherwise healthy individuals 18 to 50 years of age who have already received primary vaccination and a first booster dose is not likely to have as marked an effect on hospitalization or death as in the other populations at higher risk,” the FDA officials wrote. “However, booster vaccinations could be associated with a reduction in health care utilization (e.g., emergency department or urgent care center visits).”

In a press briefing Tuesday, WHO advisors called the benefit of boosting those at low or even medium risk “actually quite marginal” and suggested that countries could roll back offering primary COVID-19 vaccination series to low-risk healthy children and teens based on country-specific conditions and resources.

Context and limits

These updated recommendations “reflect that much of the population is either vaccinated or previously infected with COVID-19, or both,” said Hanna Nohynek, chair of the WHO’s advisory groups, called SAGE for the Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization. But the advisor’s updated guidance “reemphasizes the importance of vaccinating those still at risk of severe disease, mostly older adults and those with underlying conditions, including with additional boosters,” she added.

Specifically, the WHO’s SAGE considered high-risk groups: older adults; younger adults with significant comorbidities, such as diabetes and heart disease; people 6 months and older with immunocompromising conditions, such as people living with HIV and transplant recipients; pregnant people; and frontline health workers.

For these high-risk groups, SAGE recommended an additional booster six to 12 months after their last, given the current epidemiological conditions. The advisors noted that the advice is “time-limited” for the current situation, not one for annual or biannual shots to be offered in perpetuity. The scenario and overall recommendations could change depending on new, more virulent variants or future declines in COVID-19 spread, for instance.

Already, the United Kingdom and Canada have offered spring COVID-19 boosters to high-risk groups, including older people and those who have immunocompromising conditions. So far, the FDA has not indicated that it will do the same.

Continue Reading