Elon Musk, monkey brain Pong daddy

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A new sentence is born every day, so here's one for you: Elon Musk put a computer chip in a monkey's brain and now that monkey is really good at Pong. Neuralink, a neurotechnology company that is focused on creating brain-machine interfaces, posted a video Thursday that claims to show the primate playing Pong using nothing but his mind.

The very handsome fellow in the video is Pager, a 9-year-old macaque monkey and likely a future Twitch streamer. According to the video’s nameless narrator, he had a Neuralink device surgically inserted on each side of his brain about six weeks ago.

Those devices, referred to as Links, each contain more than 2,000 tiny wires that stretch across Pager's motor cortex — the part of his brain that coordinates his hand and arm movements. These wires capture neuron activity, which is activated when the brain indicates an intended movement. That activity is encoded, then decoded and converted into an input that can be processed and understood by a computer as, say, the movement of a Pong paddle.

Pager started out gaming with a joystick. He was tasked with moving a ball around to hit highlighted areas on screen, and was rewarded with a delicious banana smoothie each time he was successful. Eventually, the researchers at Neuralink took the joystick away and switched over to the brain implants. From the video, it appears that because Pager is thinking about the proper moves to keep up with the game, the Neuralink implants are capturing those thoughts and turning them into action. The video then shows Pager playing a legitimate game of Pong, apparently entirely with his mind.

Some small caveats: Pong is an incredibly simple game, requiring just up or down motions. Even the joystick game that Pager trained on, which is not exactly Dark Souls in terms of difficulty, allows for considerably more directional input. So while Pager's skills as a Pong aficionado are not to be questioned, the Neuralink is processing decidedly less motion for Pong than it was for the demo game that was used to train the monkey.

Then there's the Musk of it all. Look, there is no denying the successes of Elon Musk's companies, and the man clearly has hired lots of incredibly talented people to turn his galaxy brain thoughts into something feasible. But he's also always dancing as close as possible to the grifter line.

At this point, there doesn't appear to be any reason to question whether the Neuralink demonstration is real or not. The company previously successfully implanted its devices into a pig's brain, so it's a logical enough leap to move to monkeys next. But it's worth noting that Musk said in February 2020 that the company would possibly put a Neuralink in a human within a year — a deadline that has now passed.

In 2017, Musk promised a Neuralink device that would help people with "certain severe brain injuries" and said he would deliver it "in about four years." So far, he's given us a monkey apparently playing Mind-Pong. It's a start, at least?