Neuralink lets macaque monkeys play Pong with brain implants

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Neuralink gave a nine-year-old macaque two brain implants and taught it how to play Pong with its brain. First the company used a simpler game with a joystick to measure and understand brain activity, later the joystick was disconnected.

The monkey named Pager was given a brain implant in the two halves of his brain six weeks before the videos below were shot. These measure brain activity using 2048 electrodes implanted in the regions surrounding the locomotor cortex that coordinate hand and arm movements. Certain neurons become active with certain movements and less active with other movements. The implants measure not only the direction of the movement, but also its speed. The implants are connected to an iPhone app via Bluetooth and continuously measure brain activity. Every 25 milliseconds, the implants send brain activity to the iPhone. This data is again decoded via an algorithm.

To first understand brain activity, the monkey is given a simple game in which he has to move the cursor via a joystick to navigate a field of several cells to an orange cell. When the cursor moves to the orange box, another box turns orange and the monkey can drink a banana smoothie through a straw. That way, Neuralink can ultimately predict Pager’s hand movements and calibrate the decoder.

Neuralink would require a few minutes of calibration time before the decoder can move the cursor in the game and the joystick is no longer needed. The joystick is therefore disconnected, but not removed. Pager would keep moving these out of learned behavior. Later, Neuralink shows that Pager can also influence a game without a joystick. The company uses Pong for this. Pager affects the right side of the screen and thinks of moving his hand up or down.

The company says its goal with this project is to let a paralyzed person use a computer or smartphone with only his or her brain activity. This person should calibrate Neuralink by thinking about hand movements. People should also be able to play games with Neuralink, but it is more important to give back ‘digital freedoms’. Neuralink mentions navigating through browsers and being able to express creativity as examples. Later, Neuralink could also help people regain physical mobility and stimulate their nerves and muscles.

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