News & Commentary

Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos Back Company Working on Brain Implant Technology

First there was Elon Musk and Neuralink. Now it looks like there’s going to be a race to see which tech oligarch can get chips into people’s brains the fastest.

Sychron is a Brooklyn-based company working on brain-computer interfaces. Yesterday, the company announced the completion of a $75 million funding round. Among the participants: Gates Frontier and Bezo Expeditions – investment arms of the two billionaires.

According to the company’s press release, they have been working on their “brain implant” device since 2012. They say that the FDA granted them “Breakthrough Device designation in August of 2020, and an Investigational Device Exemption in July 2021.”

“The first US patient was implanted in July 2022 at Mount Sinai in New York,” they write, adding that their device is “currently in clinical trials in the US and Australia.”

Yes, they are already implanting these into human brains.

In a recent TED talk, the company’s CEO, Tom Oxley, gives an overview of the technology, explaining that his team is “the first in the world to receive a green light from the FDA to conduct clinical trials of permanently-implanted BCIs,” a short-hand for “brain-computer interfaces.”

“The brain doesn’t really like having needles put into it,” says Oxley. “It develops this foreign body tissue rejection immune reaction over time.” But “blood vessels,” he explains, are the “secret back door” and “natural highways” to the brain.

“For BCIs, we already know that devices can be left inside a blood vessel. Cells grow over it, incorporated into the wall like a tattoo under the skin, and we’re protected from that immune reaction.”

He calls the technology the “stentrode,” which the video’s description characterizes as “an implantable brain-computer interface that collects and wirelessly transmits information directly from the brain, without the need for open surgery.”

“Once it’s in place, it’s connected to this tiny antenna that sits under the skin in the chest,” he says. “This collects the raw brain data and sends it out of the body wirelessly, to then connect with external devices. It’s always on and ready to go, kind of like how your brain is meant to work.”

While a significant portion of the presentation is centered around emotional appeals about how this can help people who are paralyzed (which seems true), Oxley also makes it clear that he and his partners have much broader ambitions for this technology. Namely: “the future of communication,” where you can “throw your emotion” at someone else.

Near the end of the presentation, he says:

In the future, I’m really excited about the breakthroughs BCI could deliver to other conditions, like epilepsy, depression, and dimentia.

But beyond that: What is this going to mean for humanity?

What’s really got me thinking is the future of communication.

Take emotion.

Have you ever considered how hard it is to express how you feel?

You have to self-reflect, package the emotion into words, and then use the muscles of your mouth to speak those words.

But, you really just want someone to know how you feel.

For some people with certain conditions that’s impossible.

So what if rather than using your words, you could throw your emotion—just for a few seconds—and have them really feel how you feel?

At that moment, we would have realized that the necessary use of words to express our current state of being was always going to fall short.

The full potential of the brain would then be unlocked.

But for right now, BCI is about restoring the lives of millions of people with paralysis…

Again, to summarize: Having to “self-reflect” and then use “the muscles of your mouth” to express your emotions is “hard,” and was “always” going to “fall short.” Being human is woefully inadequate. Therefore, the “future of communication” is for people to become literal cyborgs with microchips in their brains, which enable them to “throw” emotions into the minds/bodies of others, and vice versa. This would, presumably, include the ability to inflict horrendous pain and suffering (but only “for a few seconds”—right? And only if you consent… right?)

While he mentions people with “certain conditions” that render them unable to speak, it seems clear that he’s talking about deploying this to a much wider demographic.

And he’s got Gates and Bezos on board.

Oh, and DARPA, who actually have been funding the development of this technology for years.

From 2016:

A DARPA-funded research team has created a novel neural-recording device that can be implanted into the brain through blood vessels, reducing the need for invasive surgery and the risks associated with breaching the blood-brain barrier. The technology was developed under DARPA’s Reliable Neural-Interface Technology (RE-NET) program […] In an article published in Nature Biotechnology, researchers in the Vascular Bionics Laboratory at the University of Melbourne led by neurologist Thomas Oxley, M.D., describe proof-of-concept results from a study conducted in sheep that demonstrate high-fidelity measurements taken from the motor cortex—the region of the brain responsible for controlling voluntary movement—using a novel device the size of a small paperclip. This new device, which Oxley’s team dubbed the “stentrode,” was adapted from off-the-shelf stent technology—a familiar therapeutic tool for clearing and repairing blood vessels—to include an array of electrodes. […] The research team is planning the first in-human trial of the stentrode in 2017 at the Royal Melbourne Hospital in Melbourne, Australia. Co-funding and support for the development of the stentrode and ensuing pre-clinical trials was provided by the U.S. Office of Naval Research Global.

What could go wrong?