Disappointing results and strong pressure from Elon Musk would push scientists to their limits, resulting in far more animal losses than expected.
Botched experiments, carried out in haste and disavowed by their own authors: Neuralink is the subject of a federal investigation in the United States concerning its animal tests, which would have unduly suffered from monkeys or even pigs.
Reutersafter having accessed several dozen documents and exchanged with employees, reveals that this investigation, accompanied by repeated internal complaints about the methods imposed by Elon Musk, was opened several months ago by the Inspector General of the Department of agriculture, and concerns animal welfare.
Neuralink has so far passed all certifications from US authorities regarding its search practices. The group develops connected brain implants, and regularly carries out tests. Since 2018, nearly 1,500 animals, including 280 sheep, pigs and even monkeys, have been killed for scientific purposes, which in itself does not indicate any crime: American law does not impose a quantitative limit.
But employees believe that this figure has been inflated illegitimately, due to repeated human errors. Errors resulting from a lack of preparation: four recent experiments involving 86 pigs and two monkeys, for example, were botched, forcing them to repeat the same tests twice and to double the losses.
Repeated accidents, as part of a partnership with the University of California, had already been the subject of a complaint from a group of doctors in February. But the new investigation targets Neuralink’s internal facilities and operations. Botched operations, implanting the wrong size implants in pigs, or installing the devices on the wrong vertebrae of animals, are for example mentioned.
Neuralink scientists would be under significant pressure, forcing them to work in a rush and make last-minute changes just before operations. In particular, the boss Elon Musk would be too demanding on the deadlines in which the tests and the scientific advances – which determine the success of Neuralink – are carried out.
The news of a major advance by Swiss scientists this year concerning implants that restored the ability to walk to a paralyzed man, provoked a flurry of comments from the boss of Twitter, aimed at his employees:
We could allow people to use their hands and walk again!” Musk wrote in an internal conversation loop, before adding, “Generally we don’t go fast enough and that’s driving me crazy! “
The manager would also have pushed his employees to act “as if they had a bomb attached to their belts”, or indicated on several occasions that he could trigger “a crash in the markets” if Neuralink did not go fast enough.
These threats in particular encourage the performance of chain tests, instead of checking all the parameters one after the other. With the key to significant animal losses and a stagnation of results.
Neuralink was supposed to start testing on humans within six months, but employees question the quality of the data collected so far by the group. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the American scientific authority, is studying Neuralink’s candidacy for such operations on humans.
The group faces fierce competition in the field of implants: Synchron, launched at the same time in 2016, has already reached the human testing phase in 2021, with a green light granted by the FDA. The group has also only killed 80 sheep so far. Elon Musk had also tried to invest in Synchron this summer, as already explained Reuters.