BCI Madness

While much of the world is currently focused on World Cup matches and a few months before Americans become enmeshed in NCAA Basketball, the neurotechnology industry seems to be fascinated with the fierce competition among firms developing brain-computer interfaces. Much of the current media frenzy on this subject no doubt stems from the role Elon Musk’s Neuralink startup is playing, given the current attention he has drawn from his antics while taking over Twitter.

Nonetheless, there were some noteworthy developments that came out of his November 30 live-streamed event, as we indicate in our article on page 1 of this issue. Musk’s commitment to prioritize neuroprosthetic applications in coming months adds some clarity to the company’s mission, but his ultimate goal of “mitigating the long-term risk of AI” seemed to ring true. “We are all cyborgs,” he said, pointing out the helplessness we all feel when we leave our smartphone behind.

Still, in the competitive BCI battles that lie ahead, Neuralink will need to overcome one major disadvantage: Musk himself. Even before the Twitter debacle, Neuralink was marred with the perception that it could not retain key employees. The recent staffing bloodbath under his helm at Twitter does nothing to dispel that notion. An article in Bloomberg reports that there are 200 former Neuralink employees on LinkedIn and that of the nine key members of the company’s founding team, only one remains besides Musk himself. Rapid turnover may be tolerable in tech firms and software startups but it just won’t fly in a healthcare concern that lives or dies based on long-term relationships with clinicians, regulators, and chronic patients.

Ethical and privacy concerns confronting BCI vendors and users will also present a key challenge to the industry in the years ahead. While numerous executives and investigators affiliated with other BCI firms have participated in events addressing these concerns—such as the recent National Academies BCI Workshop [NBR Sep22 p7]—Neuralink has been notably absent. Again, Musk’s dismantling of much of Twitter’s privacy and security infrastructure might not leave potential BCI recipients with a warm and fuzzy feeling about Neuralink’s priorities in this area.

Indeed, firms like Blackrock Neurotech, Paradromics, and Cognixion have been much more active in reaching out to the disability communities that could benefit from BCIs, as evidenced by the role they have played at events such as the Society for Neuroscience meeting. Given a choice, these potential customers might be more drawn to a vendor that truly understands their needs and priorities, as opposed to a firm that only sees them as a stepping stone to the founder’s long-term goal of warding off “Hal,” if you’ll forgive the 2001 reference.

James Cavuoto
Editor and Publisher


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