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Elon Musk’s Neuralink has reportedly killed 1,500 animals in four years

Maybe Mr Musk might volunteer to partake in these clinical trials himself!

If I know one thing to be true, it’s this: monkeys are good and Elon Musk is bad. In light of this, the allegations which emerged in February – that Musk’s Neuralink company has led to the deaths of 15 monkeys – were especially infuriating.

The monkeys in question had been implanted with Musk’s ‘Neuralink’ brain chips as part of a three-year study, from 2017 to 2020, at the University of California Davis. Out of 17 monkeys involved in the clinical trial, 15 reportedly died – information which only came to light following an investigation by animal-rights group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), which poured through over 700 pages of documents to arrive at these findings.

Now, a new Reuters story reports that Neuralink is under federal investigation for potential animal welfare violations. According to Reuters, Neuralink staff have raised concerns about the company’s animal testing procedures, suggesting that many tests are “rushed”, which in turn is causing needless suffering and deaths.

The specifics are harrowing. Reuters reports that since 2018, Neuralink has killed around 1,500 animals, including 280 sheep, pigs and monkeys. It’s not yet clear how many of these animals died after being implanted with a Neuralink brain chip, but we do know that 21 per cent of the company’s monkeys died because of issues with the devices. Neuralink employees also told Reuters that on one occasion, the company allegedly botched surgery on two pigs by implanting their chips in the wrong place. As a result, Neuralink’s veterinarian suggested euthanising one of the animals due to its deteriorating psychological wellbeing. (Yes, these are the same brain chips that Musk wants to use on humans within six months.)

Musk founded Neuralink in 2016, alongside eight other people, with the eventual goal of allowing people to communicate with the internet via a chip implanted into their brain. In Neuralink’s own words, it’s about “developing ultra-high bandwidth brain-machine interfaces to connect humans and computers.” While this technology sounds like the stuff of a dystopian sci-fi nightmare, something that would likely conclude with Tesla beaming adverts directly into your brain while you’re sleeping, the company holds some loftier ambitions: it’s partly designed in order to help people who are paralysed communicate with the world more easily. This is a laudable goal, but whether the technology is anywhere close to achieving it is unclear. Neuralink can point to some examples of success (such as a video last year which showed a macaque playing Ping Pong with his mind – leave monkeys alone!), but these recent revelations cast serious doubt on its fitness for human use.

It’s not simply that animals are dying, either; it’s that the nature of their deaths are particularly grizzly. In a complaint letter to the UC Department of Agriculture, PCRM has accused Neuralink of serious breaches of the Animal Welfare Act. One monkey was found with mutilated fingers and toes, “possibly from self-mutilation or some other unspecified trauma.” As a result, it had to be euthanised, as was a second monkey that developed a severe skin infection. According to the PCRM, “Many, if not all, of the monkeys experienced extreme suffering as a result of inadequate animal care and the highly invasive experimental head implants during the experiments.”

In a blog post published earlier this year, Neuralink admits that eight monkeys were euthanised, rather than 15 which PCRP has alleged. The reasons for these deaths included “one surgical complication involving the use of the FDA-approved product (BioGlue), one device failure, and four suspected device-associated infections, a risk inherent with any percutaneous medical device.” Going forward, Neuralink claims to be “absolutely committed to working with animals in the most humane and ethical way possible [...] we will always push ourselves to do more for the animals that are contributing so much to humanity.” They also claim that animals can exercise agency in choosing to partake in medical trials: “Some people want to contribute to medical research for various reasons. Some do not. Why can this not be the same for animals?”

Perhaps, before inflicting further suffering on innocent animals, Mr Musk might volunteer to partake in these clinical trials himself.

This article was originally published on 14 February and updated on 6 December.