Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

For 5 years, Elon Musk has been warning about apocalyptic runaway AI, calling it more dangerous than nukes. To stave off his feared future, in 2016 he launched Neuralink, a company to create cyborgs with the express mission of getting ahead of superhuman intelligence.

What's happening: Now, Musk says he has charted the long path to merging man and machine. In an elaborate presentation Tuesday night, he said his company has installed brain–computer links in rats and monkeys and aims to put them inside human skulls next year.

The big picture: Around the world, top research labs are building brain–computer interfaces (BCIs), devices that can both read brain activity directly from neurons and write information straight into the brain.

  • At this early stage, BCIs are being used to treat conditions and injuries related to the brain or nervous system, including Parkinson's disease or paralysis, allowing people to control, and even feel, prosthetic limbs with their minds.
  • In the far future, researchers want to implant interfaces into healthy people. Among their ideas is to use the implants for communication, or a super-efficient connection to an electronic device.

But for Musk, medical uses are a stepping stone to an existential imperative.

  • Last year, he told Axios on HBO that Neuralink's ultimate goal is to "achieve a long-term symbiosis with artificial intelligence."
  • BCI, he says, is the best defense against an alarming future in which AI suddenly surpasses human intelligence and leaves our species behind — or totally imperiled.

Key quote: "This has a very good purpose, which is to cure important diseases — and ultimately to secure humanity's future as a civilization relative to AI," Musk said Tuesday night at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.

Many AI researchers, who still struggle to get computers and robots to complete some basic tasks, disagree with Musk's techno-doomsaying. But Musk has called them "fools."

How it works: Neuralink's system consists of hundreds of electrodes implanted deep inside the brain, connected by tiny wires to a hub that communicates wirelessly with a device behind the wearer's ear. There's also a robotic "sewing machine" that plunges the electrodes into patients' brains.

  • A version of the device has been tested on rats, according to an unreviewed white paper Neuralink circulated after Tuesday's event.
  • And in response to a question on stage, Musk casually dropped that it's also been installed on a monkey, which used it to control a computer. The next step is human testing, which Neuralink hopes to get underway next year.

Reality check: Getting surgical implants into healthy humans is a long shot in the near future, says Kenneth Shepard, a BCI researcher at Columbia University.

  • For the Food and Drug Administration to approve an implant, the upsides have to far outweigh the risks. "And anything that requires surgical implantation comes with a lot of risk," says Shepard.
  • Much more likely to be approved are medical applications that address sensory or motor problems like blindness or paralysis — a significant benefit to outweigh the risks of poking stuff into brains.
  • And those are still out of reach of the best scientists, who are developing devices and software to reliably decode brain activity and send signals back into the mind.

Asked Tuesday how he plans to construct a viable business, Musk said simply that the economics of curing brain diseases and injuries "will easily pay for itself."

  • In the long run, Musk joked, "I think it's safe to say you could repay the loan with superhuman intelligence."

Go deeper: A device to translate brain activity into speech

Go deeper

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