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A paralyzed man is challenging Neuralink’s monkey to a match of mind Pong

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Nathan practices Pong


Copeland already uses mental commands to play video games including Sega classics like Sonic the Hedgehog. He admits it was a “tough” question whether to challenge Musk’s monkey or not. “I could get my ass beat,” he says. “But yeah, I would play.”

Copeland issued the challenge in an interview and on today’s episode of the national public radio program Science Friday, where he appeared to discuss brain interfaces.

Neuralink, a secretive company established by Musk in 2016, did not respond to our attempts to relay the Pong challenge.

Nathan Copeland using a neural implant to play Pong with his mind this week at the University of Pittsburgh.

COURTESY OF NATHAN COPELAND

Playing at home

Brain interfaces work by recording the electrical firing of neurons in the motor cortex, the part of the brain which controls movement. Each neuron’s firing rate contains information about movements a subject is making or merely imagining. A “decoder” program then translates the signals into a command that can be conveyed to a computer cursor.

Copeland is one of a handful of humans with an older style of implant, called a Utah array, which he uses in experiments at the University of Pittsburgh to do things including moving robotic arms. Before Copeland performs a task, he begins with a 10-minute training session so an algorithm can map firing signals from his neurons to specific movements. After such a session, Copeland says, he can think a computer cursor left or right, forward or back. Thinking of closing his hand causes a mouse click.

Beginning last March, the Pittsburgh team arranged for Copeland to use his brain implant on his own, at home, to operate a tablet computer. He’s used it to surf the web and draw pictures of a cat with a painting program. Last spring, he was using it six hours a day. “It got me through the pandemic,” he says.

MS Paint cat
This picture of a cat was drawn by Nathan Copeland, who is paralyzed but uses a brain-computer interface to control a computer. The image is for sale as a non-fungible token.

NATHAN COPELAND

The tablet is not particularly powerful, though. And he can only use it with batteries. He’s not supposed to plug his brain into any device directly connected to the electrical grid, since no one knows what effect a power surge could have. “I have encouraged him to be careful what software he puts on it,” says Jeffrey Weiss, a Pittsburgh researcher who works with Copeland. “I don’t have restrictions other than not to break the thing, and don’t get malware on it. It’s just a Windows machine.”

Copeland’s interface was installed by a neurosurgeon six years ago. He has four silicon implants in all. The two on his motor cortex allow him to control a robotic arm used in experiments or a computer cursor. Another two, in the somatosensory part of his brain, allow scientists to send signals into his mind, which he registers as sensations of pressure or tingling on his fingers.

The monkey’s advantage

If a mind match occurs, Neuralink’s primate would have the advantage of a next-generation interface, which the company calls “the Link.” While Copeland has to attach cables to two ports on his skull, Neuralink’s implant is about the size of a soda bottle cap and is embedded entirely in the skull. It transmits the brain recordings wirelessly, via Bluetooth.

“It’s a very promising device, but it’s new, and there are many questions about it,” Weiss says. “No one outside Neuralink has been able to get a look at it.” The company has said it hopes to recruit human subjects, but that will depend on how the implant holds up in animals, including pigs, which Neuralink is performing tests on. “No one knows if it’s going to last six months or six years,” says Weiss.

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Climate tech is back—and this time, it can’t afford to fail

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an embroidered patch based on the Valley of Death with the words "Valley of Death Survivor" at the bottom


Boston Metal’s strategy is to try to make the transition as digestible as possible for steelmakers. “We won’t own and operate steel plants,” says Adam Rauwerdink, who heads business development at the company. Instead, it plans to license the technology for electrochemical units that are designed to be a simple drop-in replacement for blast furnaces; the liquid iron that flows out of the electrochemical cells can be handled just as if it were coming out of a blast furnace, with the same equipment. 

Working with industrial investors including ArcelorMittal, says Rauwerdink, allows the startup to learn “how to integrate our technology into their plants—how to handle the raw materials coming in, the metal products coming out of our systems, and how to integrate downstream into their established processes.” 

The startup’s headquarters in a business park about 15 miles outside Boston is far from any steel manufacturing, but these days it’s drawing frequent visitors from the industry. There, the startup’s pilot-scale electrochemical unit, the size of a large furnace, is intentionally designed to be familiar to those potential customers. If you ignore the hordes of electrical cables running in and out of it, and the boxes of electric equipment surrounding it, it’s easy to forget that the unit is not just another part of the standard steelmaking process. And that’s exactly what Boston Metal is hoping for. 

The company expects to have an industrial-scale unit ready for use by 2025 or 2026. The deadline is key, because Boston Metal is counting on commitments that many large steelmakers have made to reach zero carbon emissions by 2050. Given that the life of an average blast furnace is around 20 years, that means having the technology ready to license before 2030, as steelmakers plan their long-term capital expenditures. But even now, says Rauwerdink, demand is growing for green steel, especially in Europe, where it’s selling for a few hundred dollars a metric ton more than the conventional product.

It’s that kind of blossoming market for clean technologies that many of today’s startups are depending on. The recent corporate commitments to decarbonize, and the IRA and other federal spending initiatives, are creating significant demand in markets “that previously didn’t exist,” says Michael Kearney, a partner at Engine Ventures.

One wild card, however, will be just how aggressively and faithfully corporations pursue ways to transform their core businesses and to meet their publicly stated goals. Funding a small pilot-scale project, says Kearney, “looks more like greenwashing if you have no intention of scaling those projects.” Watching which companies move from pilot plants to full-scale commercial facilities will tell you “who’s really serious,” he says. Putting aside the fears of greenwashing, Kearney says it’s essential to engage these large corporations in the transition to cleaner technologies. 

Susan Schofer, a partner at the venture firm SOSV, has some advice for those VCs and startups reluctant to work with existing companies in traditionally heavily polluting industries: Get over it. “We need to partner with them. These incumbents have important knowledge that we all need to get in order to effect change. So there needs to be healthy respect on both sides,” she says. Too often, she says, there is “an attitude that we don’t want to do that because it’s helping an incumbent industry.” But the reality, she says, is that finding ways for such industries to save energy or use cleaner technologies “can make the biggest difference in the near term.”

Getting lucky

It’s tempting to dismiss the history of cleantech 1.0. It was more than a decade ago, and there’s a new generation of startups and investors. Far more money is around today, along with a broader range of financing options. Surely we’re savvier these days.

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Making an image with generative AI uses as much energy as charging your phone

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Making an image with generative AI uses as much energy as charging your phone


“If you’re doing a specific application, like searching through email … do you really need these big models that are capable of anything? I would say no,” Luccioni says. 

The energy consumption associated with using AI tools has been a missing piece in understanding their true carbon footprint, says Jesse Dodge, a research scientist at the Allen Institute for AI, who was not part of the study. 

Comparing the carbon emissions from newer, larger generative models and older AI models  is also important, Dodge adds. “It highlights this idea that the new wave of AI systems are much more carbon intensive than what we had even two or five years ago,” he says. 

Google once estimated that an average online search used 0.3 watt-hours of electricity, equivalent to driving 0.0003 miles in a car. Today, that number is likely much higher, because Google has integrated generative AI models into its search, says Vijay Gadepally, a research scientist at the MIT Lincoln lab, who did not participate in the research. 

Not only did the researchers find emissions for each task to be much higher than they expected, but they discovered that the day-to-day emissions associated with using AI far exceeded the emissions from training large models. Luccioni tested different versions of Hugging Face’s multilingual AI model BLOOM to see how many uses would be needed to overtake training costs. It took over 590 million uses to reach the carbon cost of training its biggest model. For very popular models, such as ChatGPT, it could take just a couple of weeks for such a model’s usage emissions to exceed its training emissions, Luccioni says. 

This is because large AI models get trained just once, but then they can be used billions of times. According to some estimates, popular models such as ChatGPT have up to 10 million users a day, many of whom prompt the model more than once. 

Studies like these make the energy consumption and emissions related to AI more tangible and help raise awareness that there is a carbon footprint associated with using AI, says Gadepally, adding, “I would love it if this became something that consumers started to ask about.”

Dodge says he hopes studies like this will help us to hold companies more accountable about their energy usage and emissions. 

“The responsibility here lies with a company that is creating the models and is earning a profit off of them,” he says. 

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The first CRISPR cure might kickstart the next big patent battle

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The first CRISPR cure might kickstart the next big patent battle


And really, what’s the point of such a hard-won triumph unless it’s to enforce your rights? “Honestly, this train has been coming down the track since at least 2014, if not earlier. We’re at the collision point. I struggle to imagine there’s going to be a diversion,” says Sherkow. “Brace for impact.”

The Broad Institute didn’t answer any of my questions, and a spokesperson for MIT didn’t even reply to my email. That’s not a surprise. Private universities can be exceedingly obtuse when it comes to acknowledging their commercial activities. They are supposed to be centers of free inquiry and humanitarian intentions, so if employees get rich from biotechnology—and they do—they try to do it discreetly.

There are also strong reasons not to sue. Suing could make a nonprofit like the Broad Institute look bad. Really bad. That’s because it could get in the way of cures.

“It seems unlikely and undesirable, [as] legal challenges at this late date would delay saving patients,” says George Church, a Harvard professor and one of the original scientific founders of Editas, though he’s no longer closely involved with the company.  

If a patent infringement lawsuit does get filed, it will happen sometime after Vertex notifies regulators it’s starting to sell the treatment. “That’s the starting gun,” says Sherkow. “There are no hypothetical lawsuits in the patent system, so one must wait until it’s sufficiently clear that an act of infringement is about to occur.”

How much money is at stake? It remains unclear what the demand for the Vertex treatment will be, but it could eventually prove a blockbuster. There are about 20,000 people with severe sickle-cell in the US who might benefit. And assuming a price of $3 million (my educated guess), that’s a total potential market of around $60 billion. A patent holder could potentially demand 10% of the take, or more.

Vertex can certainly defend itself. It’s a big, rich company, and through its partnership with the Swiss firm CRISPR Therapeutics, a biotech co-founded by Charpentier, Vertex has access to the competing set of intellectual-property claims—including those of UC Berkeley, which (though bested by Broad in the US) hold force in Europe and could be used to throw up a thicket of counterarguments.

Vertex could also choose to pay royalties. To do that, it would have to approach Editas, the biotech cofounded by Zhang and Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which previously bought exclusive rights to the Broad patents on CRISPR in the arena of human treatments, including sickle-cell therapies.

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