Will Elon Musk’s Neuralink change biotech R&D?
On 28 August 2020, business magnate Elon Musk updated the world on his neural interface company, Neuralink. This involved a livestreamed demo featuring a pig named Gertrude, who had a coin-sized device implanted into her cerebral cortex which monitored the sensations felt in her snout. To show this worked, impulses detected by the implant as Gertrude sniffed around were transmitted to a computer, then transduced into a series of musical notes; which chimed in synchrony with Gertrude’s feeding. In conclusion Musk described the product as a "Fitbit for the brain", which seemed suitable for an event which appeared more reminiscent of a tech expo keynote than medical device unveiling.
Media coverage following the announcement has largely been positive, with reporters eager to relay Musk's claims regards the future of his technology; e.g. play classic computer games with the mind, the downloading and uploading of memories, and the opportunity to augment our primitive wet-ware with the latest A.I. cortex. However, reception from academics was more reserved, with many describing Musk's predictions as all-too-distant, if not fanciful for the technology presented. Professor Andrew Jackson (neural interface engineer at Newcastle University) commented that the demo reflected "Solid engineering but mediocre neuroscience" and underscored how this type of technology reveal avoided the scrutiny of peer-reviewed papers. In response, Musk tweeted "It is unfortunately common for many in academia to overweight the value of ideas and underweight bringing them to fruition".
Regardless of whether you believe in Musk's vision for Neuralink, the emergence of such massive commercial ventures in biotech appear promising for R&D. Since its conception in 2016, Musk is believed to have placed $100,000,000 of his own cash into the Neuralink project, for which he can already show a prototype with 'breakthrough device designation' by the FDA.
Arguably this unprecedented injection of capital, media attention, and exampled route to commercialisation, could erode the skittishness seen among biotechnology investors in general. This could facilitate the formation of further companies hoping to supply their customers with state-of-the-art biotechnology, thus creating new problems (and jobs) for biomaterials scientists to apply themselves to. Considering which, I sincerely wish good luck to Mr. Musk and his musical pigs!
Advanced Biomedical Materials CDT student