Neuralink: Elon Musk’s Brain Chip and Its Ethical and Privacy Concerns

Elon Musk’s ambitious project to implant computer chips into human brains to allow for communication with computers through human thought faces both excitement and criticism over ethical and privacy concerns.


Steve Jurvetson from Los Altos, USA, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Elon Musk gave a presentation on the many medical possibilities with Neuralink’s brain chip, such as restoring vision to someone born blind.

As technology continues to advance, one can’t help but worry about the consequences of innovation. After all, even though the introduction of machines has made our lives easier, it has also taken away jobs. Labor automation is a real threat: according to a 2019 study by Oxford Economics, machines are expected to replace 20 million jobs by 2030, which makes up 8.5% of the global manufacturing workforce. 

Even worse, artificial intelligence could control us. At the very least, that’s what some experts warn in response to Elon Musk’s ambitious Neuralink project, aiming to implant computer chips into the brains of humans.

Neuralink is a brain chip company founded by Elon Musk in 2016. The company aims to create implantable devices that can interface with the human brain to treat neurological disorders. Neuralink’s technology involves a tiny “sewing machine” that can implant threads, thinner than human hair, directly into the brain. These threads contain electrodes that can monitor the activity of individual neurons and transmit information to an external device. 

According to a tweet by Elon Musk, “The device is implanted flush with skull and charges wirelessly, so you look and feel totally normal.” He also claims that this implant could improve memory, enhance cognitive abilities, and restore movement to paralyzed patients, tweeting “ (The) first @Neuralink product will enable someone with paralysis to use a smartphone with their mind faster than someone using thumbs.”

Unsurprisingly, these claims have been met with large skepticism. After all, Elon Musk has a history of making ambitious claims that he has been unable to follow up on. The Cybertruck, one of the automobile industry’s most unconventional designs yet, was supposed to start production back in late 2021. After being delayed once to 2022, it was further delayed to late 2023, two years after the initial production date. On top of that, Musk claimed that the ‘Armor Glass’ on these trucks was virtually indestructible. Yet, during its unveiling at the Tesla Design Studio in Los Angeles on November 21, 2019, two windows were easily shattered by a metal ball.

Regarding the Neuralink brain chip, skeptics are more concerned about the ethics and safety of the device than the credibility of Musk. Some former employees of Neuralink have expressed concerns about the company’s testing practices, including the treatment of animals and the lack of transparency around the testing process. On top of that, there are worries about the potential risks and ethical implications of implanting computer chips in the human brain, including the risks of infection, malfunction, or hacking. 

Aside from human trials, animal trials seem to be a major setback for the company. The company has shown some success with animal trials, with videos of a monkey named Pager playing Pong with just his mind. Yet, what people don’t know from these breakthroughs is the amount of needless animal sacrifices the company has made. It was discovered that over 1,500 animals, including sheep, pigs, monkeys, mice, and rats, were killed as a result of the company rushing animal testing. While deaths during animal trials don’t mean that the company is violating any standard procedures, as many animals are usually killed after trials for post-mortem research, current and former Neuralink employees have testified that the number of deaths is needlessly inflated as a result of the company rushing their trials. Reuters, a news agency, discovered through discussions with the employees that four trials that involved a total of two monkeys and eighty-six pigs were ruined because of human error. These errors resulted in researchers having to repeat multiple trials, resulting in more animals being killed. 

Despite the many concerns regarding how Neuralink treats their test animals, the company sought approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to start human trials in early 2022 and was rejected with a list of issues the company had to address before testing. The majority of these concerns had to do with the lithium battery in the device, whether the tiny wires could move around in the brain, and how to remove the device without damaging brain tissue. Unless the company figures out how to solve these problems, there is no hope of them getting approval from the FDA.

In response, during an update in November of 2022, Elon Musk said that he expected the company to be able to resolve these issues by the spring of 2023. Yet, much like his Tesla Cybertruck deadlines, he has failed to reach many internal deadlines set by the company to achieve FDA approval. In a 2019 presentation, Musk aimed for regulatory approval by the end of 2020. Then, in late 2021, he said he hoped to start trials by the end of 2023. These empty promises display the predicament that Musk is in: he is rushing the company to conduct experiments quickly to try to make progress faster, but the carelessness leads to further delays in research and development, leading to even more missed deadlines.

Regardless, the company has announced that it has successfully implanted its technology in a human volunteer with quadriplegia, or paralysis of all four limbs. They claim that the person, who remains unidentified, was able to control a computer cursor and play a video game using only their thoughts, thanks to the brain-chip implant. The announcement represents a significant milestone for Neuralink in light of all the recent skepticism and criticism over its claims about its technology and testing practices. However, some experts advise that the announcement should be viewed with caution, as the company has not yet published its findings in a peer-reviewed scientific journal or provided detailed information about its testing process and results. 

News regarding the Neuralink brain chip has been nothing but controversial. While the company has made major strides in improving its technology and showing some promising results, these achievements have been overshadowed by ethical and safety concerns. The future of Neuralink and the impacts it will have on our world remain unclear. What we do know for sure is that more research is needed to confirm the safety and efficacy of the technology. Neuralink’s technology is a definite step toward the future, but it seems like they’ll have an easier time developing this brain chip than actually convincing people that it’s safe.

While deaths during animal trials don’t mean that the company is violating any standard procedures, as many animals are usually killed after trials for post-mortem research, current and former Neuralink employees have testified that the number of deaths is needlessly inflated as a result of the company rushing their trials.