Neuralink’s First Patient Successfully Plays Online Chess: A Win for Musk?

Neuralink's live demonstration of a Noland Arbaugh, a quadriplegic, playing online chess using their brain-computer interface technology is undoubtedly a win for Arbaugh. But is it a win for Elon Musk?

By Dylan G. Arrazati

Key Points: 

  • In a recent tweet, Noland Arbaugh, Neuralinks’s first patient who became quadriplegic eight years ago, successfully moves a cursor with his mind to play online chess. 
  • This demonstration, while not groundbreaking, showcases the potential of brain-computer interface technology to enhance autonomy for individuals with severe mobility impairments. 

Elon Musk’s brain chip company, Neuralink, has once again captured global attention with a live demonstration on X showcasing its latest feat: Noland Arbaugh, Nerualink’s first patient, playing online chess using only his thoughts. This critical event, met with both excitement and criticism, marks a pivotal moment in Musk’s journey to develop the most advanced brain-computer interface (BCI).  

Progress and Considerations with BCI Technology

Central to this development is Neuralink’s sophisticated BCI technology, which enables direct communication between the brain and external devices, translating neural signals into commands that can control computers or other electronics. What sets Neuralink’s BCI technology apart is its complex nature, requiring a robot to successfully implant the chip, which happens to work remotely. Accordingly, Neuralink’s BCI, which will be called Telepathy, involves implanting 1,024 electrodes directly into the brain, allowing for more precise signal detection and control over connected devices.

It is important to note, however, that Neuralink’s achievement, while impressive, stands on the shoulders of previous advancements in the BCI field. Several companies and research institutions have already demonstrated the successful use of BCIs in enabling individuals to control various technologies with their thoughts, such as cursors, wheelchairs, and robotic arms. However, these companies with similar BCI systems, like Synchron and Blackrock Neurotech, lack Musk’s unique vision for BCI technology. 

Here are some notable long-term goals for Elon Musk’s Neuralink: 

  • Interface with every aspect of the brain 
  • Restore eyesight, even for people who were born blind
  • Cure paralysis and restore full body movement 
  • “Achieve a symbiosis between our biological mind and our digital mind…It’ll be much more symbiotic with the AI extension of yourself,” states Elon Musk. 

It is clear that scientists have made significant strides when it comes to BCI advancements, but several BCI experts have scrutinized the durability and long-term functionality of these devices, with critics pointing out their inevitable degradation over time. Thus, there still remain several technical complications that need to be addressed before these systems can be widely adopted and integrated into the daily lives of users, ensuring not only their effectiveness but also their safety and reliability in long-term applications.

That being said, Neuralink’s recent live demonstration with Arbaugh, a 29-year-old who suffered a severe spinal cord injury eight years ago in a freak diving accident, has proven not only the device’s functionality but also its future potential in the BCI space. What’s more, this development sheds light on the possible applications of this technology in individuals with severe mobility impairments, which could potentially lead to enhanced autonomy in the physical and digital worlds. 

What Noland Arbaugh Has to Say

Following Neuralink’s chip implantation into Noland Arbaugh, he described the procedure as “super easy,”  with reports confirming that he was released from the hospital one day after the surgery with no cognitive side effects. Now, in a recent video of him playing online chess, Arbaugh states, “It was like using the force on the cursor.” 

Notably, in another Tiktok video, Arbough had this to say when asked about what it felt like to move the cursor with his mind: 

“It’s freaking wild. It’s hard to explain, honestly.  So much of what I feel is impossible to get others to understand. I can feel myself moving my index finger. It’s not moving, but I can feel it. I’m doing it and it’s it’s just not able to, you know, there’s no way for you to understand what that feels like. I can explain it. I can try. But there’s just no way… It’s very complicated… But it’s cool.” 

Significantly, Arbagh provided insightful comments on the chip’s functionality, stating, “We have run into some issues. I don’t want people to think this is the end of the journey. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but it has already changed my life.” 

A Win for Musk? 

Nueralink’s successful online chess demonstration, while not groundbreaking, is still a win for Musk and undoubtedly a victory for Noland Arbaugh. This development, while early, demonstrates the potential impact on restoring control over one’s environment, particularly for those suffering from mobility impairments, such as patients with spinal cord injuries and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). 

Nevertheless, researchers are still urging caution, stressing the importance of thorough testing and transparency with the scientific community to ensure the safety and effectiveness of Neuralink’s technology, while also considering its ethical implications. So while Neuralink’s demonstration with Arbaugh is a step in the right direction, Musk still has to overcome some technical and ethical hurdles before the technology can be widely accepted and implemented for broader use. 

  4. Maiseli, B., Abdalla, A. T., Massawe, L. V., Mbise, M., Mkocha, K., Nassor, N. A., Ismail, M., Michael, J., & Kimambo, S. (2023). Brain-computer interface: trend, challenges, and threats. Brain informatics, 10(1), 20.
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