Copeland already uses mind controls to play video games, including Sega classics like Sonic the Hedgehog. He admits it was a “hard” question whether to challenge Musk’s monkey or not. “I could get my ass pounded,” he said. “But yes, I would play.”
Copeland launched the challenge in an interview and on today’s episode of the national public radio program Scientific Friday, where he appeared to discuss brain interfaces.
Neuralink, a secret society founded by Musk in 2016, has not responded to our attempts to take over the Pong challenge.
Play at home
Brain interfaces work by recording the electrical triggering of neurons in the motor cortex, the part of the brain that controls movement. The trigger rate of each neuron contains information about the movements that a subject is making or simply imagining. A “decoder” program then translates the signals into a command that can be routed to a computer cursor.
Copeland is one of the few humans to have an older style of implant, called the Utah Matrix, which he uses in experiments at the University of Pittsburgh to do things, including moving robotic arms. Before Copeland performs a task, he begins with a 10-minute workout so an algorithm can map the trigger signals from his neurons to specific movements. After such a session, Copeland says, he may think of a computer cursor left or right, forward or backward. Thinking about closing your hand causes a mouse click.
In early March, the Pittsburgh team arranged for Copeland to use his brain implant alone, at home, to operate a tablet. He used it to surf the web and draw pictures of a cat with a paint program. Last spring he was using it six hours a day. “It helped me get through the pandemic,” he says.
The tablet is not particularly powerful, however. And it can only use it with batteries. He is not supposed to plug his brain into a device directly connected to the power grid, because no one knows what effect a power surge might have. “I encouraged him to be careful with the software he installs there,” says Jeffrey Weiss, a Pittsburgh researcher who works with Copeland. “I have no restrictions other than not breaking the thing and not receiving malware in it. It’s just a Windows machine. “
The Copeland interface was installed by a neurosurgeon six years ago. He has a total of four silicone implants. The two on his motor cortex allow him to control a robotic arm used in experiments or a computer cursor. Two more, in the somatosensory part of his brain, allow scientists to send signals into his mind, which he registers as pressure or tingling sensations on his fingers.
The monkey advantage
If a mental match occurs, Neuralink’s primate would have the benefit of a next-generation interface, which the company calls “the link.” While Copeland has to attach cables to two ports in his skull, Neuralink’s implant is roughly the size of a soda bottle cap and is fully integrated into the skull. It transmits brain recordings wirelessly, via Bluetooth.
“It’s a very promising device, but it’s new and there are a lot of questions about it,” Weiss says. “No one outside of Neuralink was able to examine it.” The company said it hopes to recruit human subjects, but that will depend on the resistance of the implant in animals, including pigs, that Neuralink is testing on. “Nobody knows if it’s going to last six months or six years,” says Weiss.