Elon Musk: billionaire, CEO, and master of spin.
The SpaceX and Tesla CEO took to Twitter-formerly-X — a platform that the billionaire also owns, having purchased it for $44 billion back in 2022 — over the weekend to defend his brain chip company, Neuralink, against animal abuse claims.
Ever the logician, Musk is now claiming that contrary to media reporting and a federal investigation, Neuralink's brain implants didn't actually kill any monkeys; according to him, the animals were on the edge of death already.
To back up for a moment, Neuralink first came under fire in February of last year when a medical nonprofit called the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) filed a complaint alleging that the company had performed "invasive and deadly brain experiments" on 23 rhesus macaques monkeys. Fifteen of these monkeys, the nonprofit claimed, ultimately died as a result of the testing. (Later in the year, in September 2022, the PCRM would go public with a new allegation: that UC Davis was in possession of several hundred photos of the purportedly abused Neuralink monkeys, and that these gruesome photos "showed monkeys suffering from chronic infections, seizures, paralysis, and painful side effects following [the] experiments.")
"The documents reveal that monkeys had their brains mutilated in shoddy experiments," Jeremy Beckham, a research advocacy coordinator with PCRM, said in a statement at the time, "and were left to suffer and die."
Those are serious accusations, and the backlash was swift enough to prompt a reply from Neuralink, with the company writing on the platform formerly known as Twitter that "animals at Neuralink are respected and honored by our team." But though the company did dispute the exact number of dead monkeys in a reactionary blog post, it did confirm that eight of its monkeys, or 21 percent of the total testing cohort, had perished during trials. "Two animals," the blog read, "were euthanized at planned end dates to gather important histological data, and six animals were euthanized at the medical advice of the veterinary staff at UC Davis."
"These reasons included one surgical complication involving the use of the FDA-approved product (BioGlue), one device failure, and four suspected device-associated infections," the blog post continued. "In response we developed new surgical protocols and a fully implanted device design for future surgeries." So, according to Neuralink's blog, monkeys did die, just not as many as the PCRM alleged.
The blog post also noted that Neuralink's initial research, which was conducted alongside the University of California, Davis' California National Primate Research Center (CNPRC), was "performed first in animal cadavers and then later in terminal procedures," terminal procedures being those in which an animal that was already on the verge of death is humanely euthanized before ever waking from anesthesia.
But, to be clear, Neuralink addressed the eight monkey deaths in question while discussing the company's subsequent "survival surgeries," explaining that its cadaver and terminal monkey testing laid the groundwork for greater success in these later surgeries — and did not suggest that the eight controversial deaths took place among terminal primates.
Which brings us to Musk's recent narrative rewrite. On Sunday, an AI researcher and blogger named Brian Chau, who also hosts a podcast dubbed From the New World, took to X to express his feelings about the animal abuse claims — and, well, it's safe to say that Chau is Camp Neuralink. Sharing a screenshot of a Consequence.net article from 2022 about the PCRM's initial allegations, the podcaster sardonically captioned the image: "Ethicists': 15 monkeys are more important than the hyperacceleration of all science and invention."
"Professional ethics are a collection of maximally evil people," Chau added, for good measure.
Musk, ever the reply guy, responded that "no monkey has died as a result of a Neuralink implant."
"First our early implants," Musk added in his X reply, "to minimize risk to healthy monkeys, we chose terminal monkeys (close to death already)."
Of course, this claim directly contradicts the fact that Neuralink has already admitted that several of its monkeys were euthanized after developing infections and other side effects. So, either Musk is completely retconning that, or it's more of a philosophical argument — that it doesn't really matter if you kill a monkey that's already dying. Or, maybe, he's arguing that a death caused by surgical complications — glue issues, infections, more of the like — doesn't quite mean that a Nearalink implant killed a monkey. Surgery did!
Any way you slice it, though, when you put Musk's "terminal" tweet in context with the alleged nature of some of these monkeys' injuries — according to one PCRM claim, BioGlue "seeped through to the monkeys's brains," in one case causing a monkey to vomit so much from a glue-induced brain bleed that "she developed open sores in her esophagus" — the claim that Neuralink didn't actually kill any monkeys feels weak.
There are rules regarding animal welfare in lab settings for a reason. If the allegations against Neuralink are true, the company certainly wasn't up to animal ethics codes. Suffering is suffering, whether an animal is terminal or not.
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