Elon Musk’s Neuralink: Abusing Monkeys & Stealing Science?
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Today I would like to talk about reported controversies with a biotech company called Neuralink, which ordinarily wouldn’t be a big deal but this company is owned by one Elon Musk, so if you happen to watch this video on YouTube and you accidentally hit the scroll wheel on your mouse, you might run into a bunch of this in the comments. Just…be aware.
Neuralink was founded by Musk and a handful of less important people back in 2016 with the goal of creating brain implants that would allow people to use MIND POWERS to interact with computers. There are a million potential end uses for something like this, and Musk seems to have, at one point or another, touted all of them: playing video games by simply thinking, curing blindness or paralysis, telepathy, and a real life “save point” that would allow you to backup your entire life and reload if you miss that crucial jump the next time you’re parkouring between skyscrapers.
Neuralink is in the news this month because a nonprofit called the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) has filed a lawsuit to obtain documents related to the company alleging extremely serious ethical abuses in regards to animal trials involving monkeys. I won’t go on too long about the specifics but know that I AM going to talk about it and it IS pretty upsetting if you, unlike Elon Musk apparently, have an ounce of sympathy for animals (human or otherwise). So along with my “weird nerds” content warning, note that there is also an “icky thing happening to animals” warning.
But here’s the thing: this isn’t just a question of whether or not Neuralink abused a few monkeys (not that that’s a small thing): this entire to-do has also brought to the forefront and important argument about publicly-funded research, private corporations buying science, NDAs, and who “owns” the future.
I’ll start with the animal abuse allegations, though. A few years ago, Neuralink had plans to build an animal testing facility in the heart of San Francisco, where they’re based. After a bit of back and forth over permitting, they instead decided in 2017 to partner with the nearby University of California Davis, which already boasted a huge primate testing lab, one of only seven in the entire US. Since then, they’ve given the University about $1.4 million, building a 6,000-square-foot vivarium that opened in 2020.
Enter the PCRM, a nonprofit that’s been around since the ‘80s and is heavily linked to PETA. Yes, that’s a big red flag because PETA has, throughout its history, done a lot of stupid anti-science bullshit. That said, PCRM hasn’t really done anything ridiculous like PETA: they’ve campaigned against fast food being served in hospitals, pointed out that the Atkins diet is kind of stupid, and pushed back on certain animal testing labs. That last one has had them often butting up against other scientists: a lot of animal testing is absolutely critical for developing new medical interventions for humans, but not all of it is. Animal models aren’t perfectly analogous to humans, so researchers need to think carefully about whether it’s actually worth subjecting animals to otherwise unnecessary torture.
I honestly think of groups like PCRM as an overall good: are they right about everything? Probably not. But yes, we absolutely need people to push back on existing narratives and assumptions, like “well we HAVE to test this on monkeys before we let humans have it.” True about some things, not necessarily true about others. A good example is the Impossible Burger: a few years ago I made a video debunking the idea that vegans should boycott Impossible Foods because they performed animal testing. The testing was on rats and it was required by the FDA because even though their “meat” is based on soybeans, it uses a very specific part of the soybean that the FDA hadn’t previously approved for food. It’s stupid: no one needed to kill 188 rats to know that this new veggie burger wouldn’t make people explode, and of course organizations like PETA attacked Impossible Foods, and not the FDA guidelines that forced their hand. The whole thing was wasteful.
But when it comes to something like, oh, surgically implanting a “fitbit” into a brain, yeah, I can certainly see why we might want to test that on non-human animals first. And animal testing in cases like this almost always mean that the animal is going to suffer and die. Even if the actual intervention doesn’t kill the animal, often researchers need to kill the animal afterwards to do a post-mortem exam to learn as much as possible. It’s honestly awful, but in some cases there is really no other way to push science, technology, and medicine forward.
And brain/computer interfaces COULD be quite important for the future of humanity: there are many companies exploring them, and research on them goes all the way back to the ‘70s. There are real, exciting applications that are within reach, like restoring people’s vision or reversing paralysis. A lot of people can compellingly argue that that’s worth sacrificing nonhuman animals, even before we get to the distant future/never gonna happen stuff like being able to upload your entire self into the Matrix or whatever.
So, Neuralink killed a few monkeys. What’s the big deal? Well, while it may be inevitable that some (or most or all) animals will suffer in some way and then die, humanity has set up some basic standards for how MUCH they suffer, and whether it’s really worth it. A chance of reversing paraplegia? Sure. A billionaire’s science fiction fantasy he wants to sell to get more money? Hmm. Maybe!
And so what PCRM is alleging isn’t just that the monkeys died, but that they suffered in extreme ways. The documents they sued to get from UC Davis included reports of at least one monkey missing fingers and toes with no real explanation on how that might happen, and several monkeys that died because the researchers used BioGlue to adhere the chips to their brains, which promptly melted their neurons. Neuralink responded by saying BioGlue is FDA-approved, but it is explicitly NOT approved for use on nerve endings for exactly that reason. It’s like saying vodka is FDA approved and then being shocked when butt-chugging it lands you in the hospital.
So: did researchers at UC Davis unnecessarily abuse animals while performing research for Neuralink? Possibly. PCRM is trying to get more documents from them to explain what exactly is going on, and that, dear viewer, is where we run into problem number two: capitalism.
Last month I told you about Sci-Hub, which wants scientific data to be freely accessible. I pointed out that even publicly funded research ends up behind paywalls that only benefit wealthy publishing companies at the expense of humanity’s scientific progress.
The pairing of UC Davis and Neuralink is a related problem: why do we allow private industry to “buy” research from publicly funded universities – research they then make private and profit off of? I also touched on this in my video about Bill Gates last year: billionaires don’t exist because they’re brilliant people who leveraged their genius. They exist because they take public knowledge and resources, privatize them, and reap all the profits.
This is a perfect encapsulation of that: UC Davis is a public university, funded by our tax dollars. Neuralink swooped in and bought their researchers for a song – $1.4 million is a drop in the bucket – in fact, it’s .0006% of Elon Musk’s net worth of $233.6 billion. The net worth of a median American family is $121,700. If they spent .0006% of their net worth, it would be about 73 cents. Elon Musk bought a research lab for the same relative amount that the average American might spend on, like, half a donut. What even costs less than a dollar these days?
And for that relative 73 cents, Neuralink can block the American taxpayer from reading what’s happening inside a university they are paying for. When Gizmodo asked to see the contract they inked back in 2017, UC Davis sent them a “heavily redacted” document that didn’t even show the length of time the contract was for. A university spokesperson “argued that the redactions would help preserve Neuralink’s trade secrets,” which were being developed in a lab where California residents are paying to keep the lights on.
And when PCRM requested documents regarding the treatment of animals in that lab, the publicly-funded facility refused to release photos and videos they possessed, arguing that “the records belong to Neuralink, a private company not subject to California’s Public Records Act.”
“UC Davis cannot shield a private company from public scrutiny,” says Deborah Dubow Press, Esq., associate general counsel with the Physicians Committee. “Photos and videos of animals housed and experimented on in a public institution are public records. Neuralink can’t avail itself of public resources but evade public accountability.”
No matter how you feel about animal experimentation, I hope we can all agree that PCRM is making a really great point there.
While investigating all this, I found a great article in The Atlantic from 2017 that explores the myriad problems that arise when private industry gets its claws into public research, and it even opens with the story of a UC Davis researcher, Jonathan Eisen, refusing to sign a corporation’s 13-page non-disclosure agreement just to participate in an on-campus meet-and-greet. The Atlantic writer, Molly McCluskey, points out that after a year of research she was unable to even say how much private money is poured into public university research programs “because much of that funding is simply not disclosed. Only one university, the University of Michigan, maintains a public database of how its research is funded. I sent public-records requests to more than a dozen public universities—many of them among the National Science Foundation’s top-10, tier-1 public research schools—for information on corporate-sponsored research. Only four of those requests yielded a full response. The rest netted documents with vital information redacted, were met with extended processing times of up to six months, required fees of several hundred dollars or more, or, in some cases, were ignored or just flat-out denied.”
She goes on to point out that if that private funding is deposited into the public university’s foundation, the corporation can even deduct it from their taxes. So that 74 cents that Elon Musk spent on his research at UC Davis? Yeah, that might have reduced his already negligible tax burden.
The cofounder of Retraction Watch told McCluskey “What tends to happen with industry-sponsored research is not fraud, it’s not misconduct, it’s nothing that would be retractable…It’s that they pick questions, and they pick studies, and they pick study designs that are likely to give them the answer they want.”
And then they can take those answers, hide them from the general public as “trade secrets” and use them to manufacture nifty new devices, which may or may not make the world a better place, for the people who can afford them, unless and until the company producing them goes bankrupt. And yes, that’s already happening: just ask Barbara Campbell, a woman who went blind due to a genetic disease four years ago but had her sight restored with a neural implant. Unfortunately for her, the company that made the implant, Second Sight, has just gone out of business, leaving her with a nonfunctional object in her face. So now she’s blind, has a hunk of cybernetics in her head that can cause further medical complications until it’s (painfully) removed, and makes it so she can’t get an MRI. Second Sight didn’t even bother to inform her or the 350 other customers that they were now literally in the dark.
How do we prevent this from happening again? Well, for a start we can try keeping publicly funded scientific knowledge public. If the medical interventions our tax dollars help develop are made freely available, then a new company or nonprofit can step in and restore these people’s sight, permanently. Making the research available from early on would also help with pesky issues like “making sure the devices actually work the way they’re supposed to” and “not allowing a bunch of monkeys to chew their own fingers off from the stress of Krazy Glue melting their brains.” It’s truly a win-win.
For that reason, I’m fully on the side of PCRM: the real goal isn’t (just) proving whether or not UC Davis scientists are abusing animals unnecessarily – it’s making sure that public researchers are held publicly accountable.
I almost wrote a lengthy comment here about my experience of 15 years doing neuroscience research with rhesus monkeys, and why my experiences lead me to be even more suspicious of PCRM’s allegations than just the “red flag” of being associated with PETA. But despite the fact that I no longer do that work, I’m still too nervous about animal rights extremists to write about it in such detail, even pseudonymously. Perhaps I’m a coward.
Suffice to say, I completely agree about the ethical conflict in privatizing research at public institutions (or even private academic institutions), and it goes double when it involves animal research, triple when it’s nonhuman primate research. But PCRM’s specific allegations sound very similar to common distortions and falsehoods by animal rights extremists, whose goal is to eliminate all research in monkeys (and of course other animals more generally) regardless of how ethically conducted or how valuable to human health and understanding.
I believe strongly the importance of the research I did and my colleagues continue to do, but I also love monkeys, not just in general but also the specific individuals that I worked with for many years (over a decade for some of them) and got to know very well. I struggled with the ethics of my work every day, as do most of my colleagues. I wish more people outside of our very small field knew how much most of us who work with these animals in the lab care about them and think about their well-being every day, whether or not they accept that the work is, on balance, ethically justified.
The introduction of the profit motive is quite poisonous to this difficult ethical calculus.
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