Elon Musk’s Neuralink—which promises to enable a direct interface between the human brain and computers—is being investigated by the federal government for alleged violation of the Animal Welfare Act, Reuters reported on Monday citing staff complaints about animal testing standards at the company.
The probe, which began a few months ago, is being conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Inspector General following a request from a federal prosecutor, the Reuters report added, citing unnamed sources familiar with the investigation.
According to the report, Neuralink’s testing has killed around 1,500 animals—including nearly 300 sheep, pigs and monkeys—since 2018, although the number is a rough estimate as the company doesn’t maintain any records on animal deaths.
Several Neuralink employees alleged that the death toll is significantly higher than it needed to be because of Musk’s push for quicker results.
Citing internal communications, the report notes that Musk has expressed his displeasure about the company not moving fast enough and has told several workers to imagine that a bomb was strapped to their heads to push them to deliver quicker results.
At a recent “show and tell” event the company demonstrated a monkey with a Neuralink brain implant “typing” characters on a screen, and other animals like pigs have also been used to demonstrate Neuralink’s device.
Forbes has reached out to Neuralink for a comment.
Earlier this year, Neuralink’s practices were called out by an animal-rights group that accused the company of subjecting monkeys to “horrific abuse.” The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine filed a complaint with the USDA against Neuralink and the University of California, Davis, where the experiments were being carried out. The group alleged that the monkeys used for the experiments were “caged alone, had steel posts screwed to their skulls, suffered ‘facial trauma,’ seizures following brain implants, and recurring infections at implant sites.” Neuralink, however, pushed back against the complaint saying they were committed to animal welfare. The company said its facilities and animal care programs have been inspected by the USDA and have “never received a citation.” Neuralink also noted that all new medical devices and therapeutics need to be tested on animals before any human trials are conducted. Animal testing is common in the healthcare industry and test subjects are sometimes euthanized after the completion of an experiment so that a post-mortem can be conducted to establish the efficacy of the test. The use of animals in testing, however, is regulated in the U.S. under the Animal Welfare Act.
Last week, at Neuralink’s latest “show and tell” recruitment event, co-founder Musk said the company plans to begin human trials of its implantable brain chip within the next six months. Musk added that the company has sought approval from the Food and Drug Administration to begin human clinical trials. Neuralink’s brain-computer interface uses thousands of small electrodes embedded directly in the brain to read signals emitted by neurons and send them to a computer. The company claims its implantable chip is around the size of a quarter and the same thickness as the piece of the skull it will replace, making it completely unobtrusive. According to Musk, the first real-world application for the brain chip could be to restore vision among people who have lost their sight or restore motor function in people suffering from paralysis. Despite the company and Musk’s ambitious claims, some experts remain skeptical about Neuralink’s progress and safety.
Exclusive: Musk’s Neuralink faces federal probe, employee backlash over animal tests (Reuters)
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