Elon Musk expects a coin-sized, wireless brain chip developed by his company Neuralink to start human clinical trials in six months - after the company missed earlier timelines set by the billionaire CEO.
Neuralink is developing brain chip interfaces it says could enable disabled patients to move and communicate again, and Musk claims it will also target restoring vision.
Based in the San Francisco Bay Area and Austin, Texas, Neuralink has in recent years been conducting tests on animals as it seeks approval from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to begin clinical trials.
"We want to be extremely careful and certain that it will work well before putting a device into a human," Musk said during a much-awaited public update on the device on Wednesday.
"The progress at first, particularly as it applies to humans, will seem perhaps agonisingly slow, but we are doing all of the things to bring it to scale in parallel," he added. "So, in theory, progress should be exponential".
The first two human applications targeted by the Neuralink device will be in restoring vision and enabling movement of muscles in people who cannot do so, Musk said.
"Even if someone has never had vision, ever, like they were born blind, we believe we can still restore vision," he said.
Grand ambitions running behind schedule
The event was originally planned for October 31, but Musk postponed it just days before, without giving a reason.
Neuralink’s last public presentation, more than a year ago, involved a monkey with a brain chip that played the computer game Pong.
Musk, who also runs electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla, rocket firm SpaceX, and social media platform Twitter, is known for lofty goals such as colonising Mars and saving humanity.
His ambitions for Neuralink, which he launched in 2016, are of the same grand scale.
He wants to develop a chip that would allow the brain to control complex electronic devices and eventually allow people with paralysis to regain motor function and treat brain diseases such as Parkinson’s, dementia and Alzheimer’s. He also talks about melding the brain with artificial intelligence.
Neuralink, however, is running behind schedule.
Musk said in a 2019 presentation he was aiming to receive regulatory approval by the end of 2020. He then said at a conference in late 2021 that he hoped to start human trials this year.
Neuralink has repeatedly missed internal deadlines to gain FDA approval to start human trials, current and former employees have said.
Rival company Synchron has already moved forward with human trials of a brain interface designed to allow people with paralysis to wirelessly control digital devices through thought.
The neural implant its testing doesn’t require open brain surgery - instead, it is threaded through a small slit in the neck up through the jugular vein and pushed into the brain.
Synchron crossed a major milestone in July by implanting its device in a patient in the United States for the first time and has already completed studies in four people in Australia.
Musk approached Synchron earlier this year about a potential investment after he expressed frustration to Neuralink employees about their slow progress, Reuters reported in August.