Back in February, Elon Musk boasted in typical Elon Musk fashion about a monkey at Neuralink HQ who could control video games via a microchip embedded within its head. “We have a monkey with a wireless implant in their skull with tiny wires who can play video games with his mind,” he told fans during a livestream on Clubhouse. “You can’t see where the implant is and he’s a happy monkey. We have the nicest monkey facilities in the world. We want them to play mind-Pong with each other.” No evidence was offered at the time, although it is fun to envision a bunch of monkeys lounging in the world’s “nicest monkey facilities” while playing video games.
Yesterday, however, Musk shared what appears to be a proof-of-work video backing his “Monkey MindPong” claims. The three-and-a-half-minute clip introduces us to Pager, a nine-year-old macaque sipping a banana smoothie while demonstrating some early Neuralink capabilities. As with most other Musk “innovations,” the truth is less novel than advertised, according to outside experts.
How it works — In the video, a narrator explains that the macaque has been trained to use a joystick to direct a cursor towards colored squares on a video screen. Each time the monkey successfully completes the task, it’s rewarded with a sip of banana smoothie. The Neuralink chip embedded into its head six weeks ago wirelessly conveys Pager’s brain activity to a computer, which then trains the chip’s AI system to associate that activity to corresponding movements. Once synced with the program, the joystick is unplugged so the monkey still believes it is directing the cursor manually, when in actuality it’s the Neuralink’s brain scan relays wirelessly controlling the game.
Throwing scientific shade — Neuralink’s newest video is objectively an impressive feat of technological progress, but many authorities sound more than a little miffed at Musk’s claims of revolutionary innovation. Andrew Jackson, a neuroscience expert at Newcastle University, explained to Business Insider that similar tech has actually been around since 2002. “If you invent a new telescope, it makes sense to first point it where you know what you will see," he said. "So they are following a very sensible route to validate their device. I am sure this device will contribute to new scientific discoveries in future (especially if they make it widely available to scientists), as well as improving the usability of existing neural interface technologies for people with paralysis."
It’s not all old news — For Jackson, the greatest leap forward comes not from the monkey’s remote neural control, but from the fact the process can now be done wirelessly. “This to me is the advance here, and is important both for improving the safety of human applications (wires through the skin are a potential route for infection) and also as a way of improving the welfare of animals used in neuroscience studies.”
"The best thing I can see from that video is that the macaque is freely moving," added bioengineering expert, Rylie Green. "There's also no visible package connected to it. I would say that is definitely progress — not super innovative but a nice positive step forward."
Of course, Musk would almost certainly take umbrage with the criticism, but then again, he generally gets offended anytime he isn’t universally showered with praise... in which case, we’re sure he’s just gonna love hearing about the newest reason to celebrate 4/20.