Elon Musk's Neuralink reveals monkey playing Pong with brain implant

A Neuralink video shows nine-year-old Macaque playing the classic video game... using a brain-implant device.

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Jackson Ryan was CNET's science editor, and a multiple award-winning one at that. Earlier, he'd been a scientist, but he realized he wasn't very happy sitting at a lab bench all day. Science writing, he realized, was the best job in the world -- it let him tell stories about space, the planet, climate change and the people working at the frontiers of human knowledge. He also owns a lot of ugly Christmas sweaters.
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4 min read

Monkey see, brain implant see, monkey do


Neuralink, the brain-implant start up founded by SpaceX head honcho and self-appointed "technoking" Elon Musk, has unveiled a new video of a nine-year-old monkey named "Pager" playing Pong... with its brain.

The three minute video shows Pager learning to control a computer with his brain activity. At first, the monkey uses a joystick to interact with the computer for a "tasty banana smoothie, delivered through a straw." The narrator states Pager has two Neuralink devices implanted in his brain. The devices, which Musk calls a "Fitbit for your skull," were revealed at a press briefing in August 2020

As Pager plays through the games, the narrator explains the Neuralink devices in his brain are reading his brain activity and that activity is being decoded by a computer. When the team disconnect the joystick, Pager keeps playing the game -- and the brain-implant allows him to play "MindPong," as Neuralink has dubbed it.

The full video is below.

Musk claimed in a tweet Thursday that the first product from the startup would allow "someone with paralysis to use a smartphone with their mind faster than someone using thumbs."

That's a future that still seems a long way off.

Mind games

It's worth taking a few minutes to really unpack what's going on here.

The first thing to note is Pager's training. To get to the stage where the macaque can play Pong with its brain, it has to successfully complete a series of maneuvers with a joystick, moving a ball across screen and landing it in a square. This rewards Pager with a drink of the reportedly "tasty" smoothie but the Neuralink device also records the electric signals sent out by the brain.

Because the device is in the motor cortex, which controls movements, its learning what these signals refer to. For instance, this part of my brain is currently telling me how to write this sentence with two hands on a keyboard and thinking about the words I want to say. It's firing away to tell me where to place each finger. With high enough fidelity a brain-computer interface may enable me to type in such a way (some, in fact, are already being trialled with results expected soon).

Back to Pager: Not only is Pager being trained to move things around a screen, but the device itself is being trained to understand what the brain signals mean in the context of Pong. Once the joystick is disconnected, Pager's brain keeps sending the same signals out, as if the macaque was moving the joystick. Up, down, up, up, up, down, down, down.

I don't mean to ridicule Pong — it's obviously a classic — but, in reality, sliding a pad along one axis is far from playing more brain-intensive titles. Humans, too, have been able to play a version of MindPong as part of the Berlin Brain-Computer Interface project, which didn't require invasive surgery.

In all, are we likely to see a MindMario Bros. or MindSonic anytime soon? The level of complexity is a huge leap for a brain-computer interface to deal with and is likely to involve much more intense signal decoding and machine learning. Neuralink has yet to reveal what the next step for the product will be, though it notes that its goals are far loftier. 

"MindPong is an initial demonstration of the potential capabilities of the N1 Link," the company said in a press release. "However, it's important to remember that it is a small slice of what our device is intended to achieve."  

Next for Neuralink?

Neuralink has been relatively radio-silent since it was first founded in 2016. In the past two years, the startup has produced two Musk-helmed press briefings, detailing its forward momentum. In 2019, the Neuralink device debuted and steady progress seemed to have been made in the following year, when the pig implants were revealed.

The briefings also functioned as recruitment drives, with Musk asking people to get in touch and join up. A similar call out is posted at the end of the Neuralink monkey video. But information is still scant: Musk and Neuralink have published one scientific paper, in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, back in October 2019.

Musk teased Neuralink had wired up a monkey's brain to play video games during a Clubhouse meeting back in February. "We have a monkey with a wireless implant in their skull who can play video games using his mind," he noted. We've now see that in action, but we haven't got much in the way of scientific evidence here, just yet.

Watch this: Neuralink's latest monkey brain chip demo explained

In the concurrent press release on Neuralink's website, the company states "our first goal is to give people with paralysis their digital freedom back: to communicate more easily via text, to follow their curiosity on the web, to express their creativity through photography and art, and, yes, to play video games."

It's been a weird few days for Neuralink. Earlier this week Neuralink president and co-founder, Max Hodak, made an ambiguous tweet about Jurassic Park that many publications took to mean Neuralink was investing in dino DNA development. Monkeys playing Pong isn't quite dino DNA but... maybe it's even more impressive? Who am I to say?