New Details Emerge on Neuralink and Kernel Efforts
by Jo Jo Platt, contributing editor
May 2020 issue
Two of the most promising and enigmatic companies to enter the neurotechnology industry in recent years have been Neuralink, founded by Elon Musk, and Kernel, founded by Bryan Johnson. The tech entrepreneurs each pumped in millions of their own funds and began hiring experienced neuroscientists and engineers. While both have been tight-lipped about their future plans, recently some new details have emerged.
With the exception of an appearance on Joe Rogan’s podcast, little more than a few Tweets have been released since Neuralink had its public unveiling last July. While Neuralink’s development will certainly be iterative, Elon Musk postulates that verbal communication can become optional within five to 10 years if development continues to accelerate. This vision for the world is evocative of Ted Chiang’s Catching Crumbs from the Table, wherein knowledge is transferred via digital neural transfer and humans are left reading about knowledge rather than acquiring it first-hand. But in order to get there, some other big mountains must first be transited.
In the May 7 podcast, Musk reported that human trials may begin within a year; the same milestone offered at the July 2019 event [NBR Jul19 p1]. A shift in timeline, while not typical of a Musk operation, is easily understood given the global disruptions caused by COVID-19. “It won’t be too long. I think we’ll be able to implant in a person in less than a year. I think,” he said. Understanding that the Rogan audience spans a variety of sectors and interests, Musk pointed out that there are plenty of devices already implanted in humans but that they range from passive devices (hip replacements) to “primitive” devices like DBS systems. The idea of human augmentation and mechanical repairs are not new.
Musk did an admirable job of allaying the oft-cited fears of the robot revolution by assuring listeners that any augmentation achieved through Neuralink devices would not be sprung on us without warning and that AI symbiosis will be optional. Before augmentation, the devices need to clear the rigorous FDA hurdles and hopefully address some serious conditions and injuries that beleaguer the human condition. Among those that Musk hopes to address are blindness, auditory incapacities, lung dysfunction, epilepsy, paralysis, and basically every condition that researchers within the neurotech field have dedicated their careers to addressing. While these are all lofty goals, they are goals set by a man whose company sent astronauts into space this month on the world’s first privately developed rocket.
While official news channels have been all but silent, we can elucidate a number of interesting developments at Neuralink over the past year. There have been some notable departures, but the company continues to augment its roughly 90- to 100-person staff with a variety of engineers from microfab, software, robotics, and other technical fields. In addition to the $100 million invested by Musk at the launch of Neuralink, a Series B reportedly pulling in between $51 and $58 million depending on the source, closed last summer. No data about burn rates or a future series have been reported. One thing is certain: investments in the broader field of neurotech have benefited from Neuralink’s high profile.
While Neuralink’s reveal event last summer was certainly notable, garnering millions of views and no small amount of social and general media coverage, Johnson and Kernel opted for a slightly different vehicle for their reveal. Kernel, launched in 2016 with a $100 million investment from Johnson (that investment figure has been reported differently over time), revealed plans for its soon-to-launch headset via the documentary I Am Human. Taryn Southern’s award-winning feature film explored the journey through BCI implantation and employed Johnson as a story-teller to guide a largely lay audience through the questions of what it means to be human and how we navigate emerging technologies in an ethical and impactful way. If you’ve been around the field for any length of time, you will recognize your fair share of colleagues up there on the silver screen. While the film did a marvelous job of normalizing technology being directly implanted into the human brain, it also gave Johnson a captive audience across industry, research, academia, and the general public to lay the foundation for the launch of Neuroscience as a Service earlier this month.
Kernel, choosing a noninvasive route, is set to deploy its brain signal acquisition helmet, dubbed “Flux” and “Flow” later this year and to offer neuroscience-specific services that can best be likened to a contract research organization model. What the helmet may lack in specificity and depth of signals, it makes up for in consumer/patient readiness. As a research tool, the portability and reported affordability (less than $5,000 per unit) may positively impact the research community by allowing for better, cheaper, faster brain imaging and studies. In addition to the helmets and the launch of NaaS, Kernel has developed two programs that can determine what song is being played and another that allows users to spell out letters through visual tracking and neural signal acquisition and decoding.