What happens when you put an incompetent engineer in charge of brain surgery?

I worked through my last two years of undergraduate college working as an assistant in an experimental animal surgery. Much of what we were doing was training medical students in basic surgical skills, and installing chronic implants for a neurophysiology department. What this involved was shaving animals, anesthetizing them, locking their heads into a stereotaxic device, and then handing them off to the experimenters. They’d cut open the scalp, drill holes into the skull, and then precisely and accurately lower electrodes into specific locations in the brain. Then either they or I would close up, which involved slathering dental acrylic over the apparatus and stitch the scalp closed. Finally, it was my job to take the animal away to a recovery room and take care of it post-op.

I’m just saying that this was over 40 years ago, but I do have some experience in this area. I assisted in these surgeries on hundreds of animals, cats, rabbits, monkeys, dogs, even goats a few times, and I can remember precisely three rabbits that died on the operating table (rabbits are what we called “friable”, fragile and easily killed by stress) and two cats who died of post-op distress and/or infections. Those were memorable to me because, as the post-op animal care guy, when there were problems I’d spend all night in the recovery room trying to nurse them back to health.

So this story about Musk’s Neuralink tells me that there is something seriously wrong. I’ll put it below the fold because it gets ugly. Seriously, my experience working with small animals was disturbing enough that I spent the rest of my career working on fish embryos and invertebrates, and I swore off doing research on mammals.

This is totally fucked up.

Out of a total of 23 monkeys implanted with Elon Musk’s Neuralink brain chips at the University of California Davis between 2017 and 2020, at least 15 reportedly died.

I’d want to know more about how they died. Eventually, all experimental animals, especially those with chronic implants, are going to be humanely (we hope) euthanized. That was my other job once upon a time, administering an overdose of barbituates and perfusing them with fixatives so the brain could be extracted for analysis (I warned you that it was going to get ugly).

By the way, 23 monkeys is a lot. When I was a grad student at the University of Oregon, we had one person who was doing primate research, and that involved one monkey per year. So much paperwork! So much expense! So much harassment from animal rights groups!

Neuralink doesn’t sound like it was a humane operation.

“Pretty much every single monkey that had had implants put in their head suffered from pretty debilitating health effects,” said the PCRM’s research advocacy director Jeremy Beckham. “They were, frankly, maiming and killing the animals.”

Neuralink chips were implanted by drilling holes into the monkeys’ skulls. One primate developed a bloody skin infection and had to be euthanized. Another was discovered missing fingers and toes, “possibly from self-mutilation or some other unspecified trauma,” and had to be put down. A third began uncontrollably vomiting shortly after surgery, and days later “appeared to collapse from exhaustion/fatigue.” An autopsy revealed the animal suffered from a brain hemorrhage.

Yikes. I also never saw these kinds of recurring infections.

The PCRM filed a complaint with the the US Department of Agriculture on Thursday, accusing UC Davis and Neuralink of nine violations of the Animal Welfare Act. “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, which were performed in pursuit of developing what Neuralink and Elon Musk have publicly described as a ‘brain-machine interface,’” the group wrote in the complaint.

“These highly invasive implants and their associated hardware, which are inserted in the brain after drilling holes in the animals’ skulls, have produced recurring infections in the animals, significantly compromising their health, as well as the integrity of the research.”

I did see infections, of course. When we did, we’d immediately get to work and clean and sterilize and treat with heavy does of antibiotics. That was a priority — any suffering beyond what was absolutely necessary for the experiment had to be controlled. You got recurring infections? You’ve got a sloppy operation.

I find this interesting and revealing, too.

A spokesperson for UC Davis responded to the complaint, saying, “We strive to provide the best possible care to animals in our charge. Animal research is strictly regulated, and UC Davis follows all applicable laws and regulations including those of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.”

The spokesperson added that the university stopped working with Neuralink in 2020. Neuralink has not issued a response.

That was my university experience as well — if you’ve got a whole lot of people who are reliant on a shared facility, who have grants riding on reliable procedures that can pass federal inspection, you might get a little finicky about a commercial outfit wrecking the reputation of your institution. Another thing I’d like to know is the details of why UC Davis severed their relationship with Neuralink.

Hey, are you still excited about having Elon Musk implant a chip in your head?


  1. says

    I should add that one of the cat deaths was directly caused by over-zealous medical students. They had that poor animal on the operating table for 6 hours while they practiced, practiced, practiced, and they made me leave after I complained (as a lowly undergrad, I had zero clout). I still remember that poor cat, exhausted and worn out, gasping for breath for hours and eventually expiring in my lap around midnight.

    Not going to work on cats ever again.

  2. says

    Musk the dingus reminds me of that prick who invented the lobotomy. In the end he figured out he could just snake an ice pick through the orbital and wiggle it around. It worked often enough that it lasted for a few decades. Brains are sensitive components. The tech is nowhere near the point where it can be done yet. I love cyberpunk literature but I also know it’s borderline fantasy. We are nowhere near the ability to hook a brain to a computer.

  3. angoratrilobite says

    These results are exactly what I expected to hear from Musk’s neuralink. Musk seems like he’s pushing hard on stuff that make him appear like humanity’s saviour. He may even sincerely believe that he’s the hero, saving us from ourselves. However, results matter, not intention. I don’t care what his intentions are, he is causing harm.

  4. Jazzlet says

    Recurring infections is a huge signal your procedures for infection control are inadequate. From the descriptions it sounds like not only the operating procedures were inadequate, but that they weren’t monitoring the monkeys properly after the operations. There is a massive responsibility to treat experimental animals well which Musks team do not appear to have come near. This kind of sloppy work is unforgiveable.

  5. PaulBC says

    This hypothetical device serves no clear purpose and it sounds like he’s gone full speed on development when the basic science isn’t there. Elon Musk is a monster and I’m getting tired of defending him based on his contribution to electric cars and battery technology (which I have done in the past). Somebody needs to shut down this asshole’s roadshow. He’s not as smart as he thinks, nor as funny, and torturing primates is beyond the pale.

  6. says

    Another thing I’d like to know is the details of why UC Davis severed their relationship with Neuralink.

    I’d like to know how — and why — UC Davis BEGAN any relationship with Neurtalink. Does Musk have some sort of magical charisma that melts all skepticism on sight? That might explain why he was allowed to put driverless cars on the road with no noticeable questioning or resistance…

  7. PaulBC says

    Ray Ceeya@8 Getting investors and marketing a product is still part of the big picture. Before Teslas, the most common image of an electric car was something like a golf cart or the bespoke contraption of the town eccentric. Engineers, unfortunately, cannot really develop consumer products outside a larger ecosystem.

    But that said, I am sick of defending this maniac.

  8. says

    We are nowhere near the ability to hook a brain to a computer.

    Just for starters, what is the “machine language” of a human brain? And even if there is one, how would we “translate” information from one to the other? Could one, for example, “translate” a JPEG image into a memory that someone would then remember as if they’d seen the picture with their own eyes?

  9. wzrd1 says

    First, the concept is a flawed concept that’s literally out of the early 1970’s, the brain as a computer. In a way, the brain is, but with each processing element not being binary, but modulated via multiple modulators, transmission is via different transmitter compounds and that will always, always confound any attempt to interface with a digital device.
    But, it gets worse, as the infection rate is also akin to the early 1970’s long term brain implant infection rate.

    Bad enough that he’s a hack, but whoever he hired to butcher these animals is a hack straight out of the early 1970’s.

  10. PaulBC says

    I think you could probably interface on some level without considering the brain to be anything like a digital computer. You would pick a subset of nerves to stimulate and sense, and you’d have to rely on the brain to learn what to do with these signals it receives, and come up with some digital models of the signals your device senses, and develop a feedback mechanism, the same way you interact with your own muscles.

    I’m not up on advances in prosthetics, but it looks like there is recent progress that might be along similar lines.

    I agree it will not be like “jacking in” as described in cyberpunk fiction (anyway in the foreseeable future). It is also a not a justification for torturing animals.

  11. PaulBC says

    Ray Ceeya@13 Yes, and without Steve Jobs (or similar entrepreneur), Wozniak would have been showing off some really cool circuit boards to the homebrew club in whatever spare time he could carve out of his job at Hewlett Packard.

    Sorry, but I think this is a silly argument. I mean, I don’t imagine I can persuade anyone, but seriously, there are fields such as business development and marketing (which I’m told are very different) and it really helps a lot to have competent people in these positions. Even if I don’t understand their value precisely, I have observed that successful technology companies invariably have motivated people on both the engineering and business sides (they also have good operations, accounting, and legal team). I have great respect for those whose abilities complement my own. It’s how advances make it from the drawing board to consumers, and some of the best ideas never make that leap.

    But Elon Musk is fucking maniac.

  12. raven says

    I’d like to know how — and why — UC Davis BEGAN any relationship with Neurtalink.

    Follow the money.

    Without knowing anything about Neuralink, there is a high probability that they offered UC Davis some money. Scientific research always needs money.

  13. david says

    A pathetic aspect of this is that implanting electrode sensors into human brains is routinely done for some patients with epilepsy. An FDA-approved device records EEG, feeds the signal to an implanted computer, and applies stimulation to the brain on a responsive basis. So the engineering aspect of this program is old hat. Only the software is a novelty, and I mihpght expect it to work as reliably as a self-driving car.

    Note: I work in a related field, but do not have any financial interests with these products.

  14. says

    Tesla vehicles and their charging network are a very important step toward the (possible, but not likely) survival of our world. But, with his every act and word, Musk shows he is a wasteful, arrogant, abusive Ahole. In addition to the animal abuse, think: Thousands of tiny satellites that would clog up Near Earth Orbit and now a large batch of them using up massive amounts of fuel, polluting the atmosphere, and burning up on re-entry. WTF!

  15. seversky says

    I understand doctors and nurses have to be emotionally hardened to some extent in order to do the work they have to do but I would be seriously concerned about the callousness of those medical students who treated the cat in that way or those monkeys in Musk’s Neuralink experiments. There must be other ways to develop a brain-computer interface. If there isn’t then maybe ew should wait until there is.

  16. Cristian Eigel says

    @shermanj, I’m not so sure that electric cars are the best way to save the world. It might be that an improved rail network would be a much better way to save the world. Building heavy boxes and driving them around doesn’t feel sustainable at all. Remote work will also contribute more to reducing green house gases then electric autos.

    @PZ, I object to calling Musk an engineer. He doesn’t have an engineering degree. Wikipedia calls him an entrepreneur and business magnate. It is true that he called himself „Chief Engineer“ at SpaceX, but whatever.

  17. davidc1 says

    Bastards,that musk really is a grade one arsehole.
    I didn’t know my respect and admiration for your good self could get any higher,but it has.

  18. asclepias says

    Damn! Getting one monkey is hard under the best of circumstances, but 23? I had to take ethical animal treatment as a graduate student, and the animals I was working with (live trapping in the field actually) weren’t even endangered (voles)! That is some seriously fucked up shit right there. I don’t care who or what the experiment is in service of; the regulatory agencies in charge of this sort of thing need to do some serious house cleaning. If you don’t have enough backbone to step up and say “no” to somebody, no matter how rich he might be, you are a seriously weak excuse for a human being.

  19. asclepias says

    I volunteer with a vet, and after she had two or three infections reported to her at incision sites (mostly spays and neuters), she started reevaluating her own practices as well as the materials she was using. Self-examination ain’t just navel-gazing, you know.

  20. stwriley says

    Here’s the thing, whether or not Musk is a competent engineer, I would never let any engineer perform brain surgery on me for any reason. There’s just no rational excuse for the whole exercise until some real neuroscientists have a better handle on how the brain works in the first place. Then maybe the engineers can design something that might have a snowball’s chance in a microwave of doing something useful. Until then, it’s all just modern-day would-be Dr. Frankensteins jazzing electricity through bodies in the vain hope that they will get a result, the subject’s pain and suffering not withstanding.

  21. unclefrogy says

    I can appreciate that Musk is in love with “the Future” I could be as well. He was lucky enough to have the money to purchase a company trying to make a business out of electric cars and he had the vision on what to do to overcome the reluctant conventional interest of the market by emphasizing and targeting the high-end segment of the car market . It does seem to take that kind of person to take semi-obscure things like electric cars or computers out of the shadows and into the spot lights.
    The trouble with those kind of developers is the impatience that often gets them through also causes a lot of problems especially thinking they can force solutions if they just push harder. They also seem too be rather self centered as well which may contribute to their success but makes them rather unpleasant.

  22. says

    During my undergraduate biology years euthanizing animals for experiments and dissection was fairly common. My .in rats, arguing that we had to learn to do it. Left to their own devices the students came up with some pretty brutal and outright sadistic methods. To this day I get squeamish when I have to put down an animal that is suffering. ( I used to do a lot of driving and sadly often hit kamikazi wildlife). I did however get very adept at quickly killing an animal with a minimum of stress and suffering.

    One particular assignment we were given involved preparing a dissection guide to an invertebrate of our own choosing. One woman decided to confront her spider phobia by wrangling and dissecting a horribly lethal Sydney funnel-web spider. Apparently the first time this was given the students rounded up several of the local vertebrates for the task. The lecturer who set the assignment was so appalled by the carnage that he specified invertebrates for that assignment in future. Apparently the worst example of callousness was a nun who went to the local animal shelter and purchased a puppy which she then had put down so she could dissect it.

  23. says

    @15 Paul BC
    Sure business majors fill a roll, but are they really worth the salary they get paid? Those of us with tech skills make a fraction of the money our treasured CEOs make, but I still don’t know what they do. Without the engineers and technicians to do the real work nothing could happen, yet these desk jockeys make 10X what we do. Show me a single billionaire engineer. They don’t exist because they live quiet lives and are happy with what they have. Business and marketing is extremely overvalued. Those of us doing the actual work are extremely undervalued.

  24. says

    Euthanization is supposed to be a precisely defined, specific procedure that has to be reviewed and approved by the IACUC. I had to write up a protocol for my zebrafish (I used an overdose of anesthetic) that I avoided implementing — old animals got retired to a big display tank until they died a natural death.

    Even now, I’ve never killed a spider. That’s going to have to change for some experiments I have in mind, which is why I made that recent video about using CO2 to put them to sleep.

    Flies, on the other hand, I murder wantonly.

  25. beholder says

    I see Musk is trying to capture the spirit of Edison’s horrific torture of animals by electrocution, except it isn’t even in service of anti-Tesla propaganda. Does he think this is a good thing? Does he care if it isn’t?

    @23 asclepias

    Damn! Getting one monkey is hard under the best of circumstances, but 23?

    Is it? Sure, if you’re up front about doing experimentation on animals with all the red tape that involves.

    Who knows, but I have a hunch these were acquired in the extralegal/probably-illegal exotic pet trade.

    If you don’t have enough backbone to step up and say “no” to somebody, no matter how rich he might be, you are a seriously weak excuse for a human being.

    Sure, but then your forego the opportunity to puff up your university by saying you’re working with Elon Musk. For what that’s worth.

  26. TGAP Dad says

    I find it hard to believe that Musk’s project ever passed IRB approval. I also wonder what the post review was like.

  27. PaulBC says

    Ray Ceeya@28 Not to belabor this too much, but I completely agree that many CEOs are overcompensated (most if you’re talking about large corporations, but nearly anyone can call themselves a CEO, and a CEO/founder may not be paid at all). I would add that many entrepreneurs are falsely celebrated as “geniuses” or “visionaries” when a lot of their success was due to opportunity, and for every big success there are at least 10 other equally talented hardworking people with worse luck.

    But I strongly disagree that engineers, left to their own devices, can accomplish all that much in the consumer space. One problem is they usually don’t think like normal consumers. I still have many friends who will insist “you can do that from the command line” by piping a bunch of Unix commands together, and that’s true, but many people don’t want to learn how and shouldn’t have to. A good product manager can make the difference between a successful release and a total flop. Maybe I don’t know what CEOs do, but I know what PMs do.

    Ideally, a business is a collaborative effort based on mutual respect (it can be, and if it’s not, I don’t have to work there). My point was less about overpaid CEOs whose core competency may be running companies into the ground and moving onto the next victim, just that it definitely takes more than engineers. I am pretty sure Steve Wozniak would agree with that (but I’m not going to put words in anyone’s mouth).

  28. brucegee1962 says

    Does Musk have some sort of magical charisma that melts all skepticism on sight?

    It’s called a checkbook.

    Flies, on the other hand, I murder wantonly.

    Do I see a Shakespeare reference from our host?
    ““As Flies to Wanton Boys are We to the gods, they Kill Us for their Sport””
    — King Lear

  29. PaulBC says

    penev@37 So, according to your account, he took an unreasonable undiversified risk and got lucky. And this is why we’re supposed to be ashamed?

    To be clear, I think your version is an extreme oversimplification, but even taken at face value, it’s completely asinine. Someone who spends all their income on lottery tickets could also be a big winner.

  30. F.O. says

    Does Musk have some sort of magical charisma that melts all skepticism on sight?

    He’s a gifted salesman (being born rich helped with the rest).

    And what he sells his himself, his own image.

    I wish we stopped worshipping salesmen.

  31. says

    Wow looks like I missed a hell of a flame war tonight. I don’t recognize “penev”. But it looks like everything he posted has been wiped but the time stamps are still up. Here I thought I was the biggest asshole here but someone brought down the banhammer.

  32. davidc1 says

    Feck,feck,feck,and an extra feck for luck,missed him again.
    I have decided not to kill any more spiders and resign from the
    spider squishing club of GB.I am going to get one of those humane
    spider catchers.There is one that is battery powered and sucks the bastard,sorry
    dear little harmless useful spiders up causing them no harm.

  33. Rob Grigjanis says

    Going by the name penev, I’m guessing he’s a Bulgarian footballer. They can be mildly annoying.

  34. PaulBC says

    Rob Grigjanis@57 I assume it’s the same troll based on particular obsessions and ways he* is apparently trying to get around word filters. “Penev” may just be the first 5 letters he typed coming up with a new name.

    It’s tiresome. It seems like he doesn’t show up until the thread has nearly exhausted itself.

    *I’m gonna go out on a limb with a gendered pronoun.

  35. Walter Solomon says

    Musk has said he wants to begin human trials for his brain chip very soon. Considering the neo-segregationist atmosphere of his companies, I have a good idea the type of people he’d love to be able to experiment on.

  36. says

    A working brain chip can be an amazing tool to help severely handicapped people communicate and interact with the world, but there’s no way I’d have one inserted unless I absolutely had to.

    Anyway, I don’t know how Musk has bamboozled so many people into believing he’s a genius at anything other than self-promotion but then someone else who was only good at that one thing managed to become president, and both of them have built cults of personality around them.

  37. rietpluim says

    Musk has no sense of reality. He is a child playing science fiction stories from the 70’s pretending to bring them to real life. Someone so immature should not play with such dangerous toys.

  38. PaulBC says

    Tabby Lavalamp@61 The biography by Ashlee Vance left me persuaded that Musk had at least read and understood some difficult volumes on rocket engineering. But now I wonder if that’s not all hype. He did manage to get source code for a computer game published in a magazine when he was a teen in the early 80s. That hit close enough to home for me that I was willing to give him some credit. (I tried to market some TRS-80 games, but never thought about publishing code.)

    But I give up. Animal torture negates any benefit of the doubt. His $420 stock price stunt was unfunny and potentially damaging, but that’s only money. He should never have been invited to be on SNL, and the skit I saw him in the next day was only lessened by his weak and wooden delivered. Somehow Sinead O’Connor made herself persona non grata just for tearing up a photo (yes, of the pope, and big whoopie do, it’s still a photo). Musk interferes with financial markets capriciously, burns up satellites en masse in the atmosphere, throws around his weight as a multibillionaire while pretending to be a clown, and now turns out has been torturing monkeys.

    He’s a global menace.

  39. PaulBC says

    Heh, maybe we need to get Bill Maher and Elon Musk in a room together. I just happened to google “stop torturing monkeys” and Mr. “Politically Incorrect” is on the case.

  40. ealloc says


    It seems like the reason CEO and managers are paid so much has nothing to do with being good at marketing or finding investors, but because they get not only labor income but a portion of capital income (facetiously accounted for as labor income), and capital income is huge (1/3 of economy).

    Perhaps, in a more fair world, both business majors and engineers would get both labor income and capital income from the physical/intellectual capital they helped produce. Currently, most engineers only get labor income. (Perhaps, in an even more fair world, everyone would only get labor income, and capital income would would be collected and used by society as a whole, though it has been debated whether this would disincentivize capital creation).

  41. PaulBC says

    ealloc@65 Most places I’ve worked, I’ve had an equity stake in the form of stock options, granted nothing like what executives get or founders get (including the first handful of engineering hires). For startups, these have usually turned out to be worthless. There have been notable exceptions (not startups) I won’t go into.

    But first off, I was not arguing about fairness of compensation. I was arguing about necessity. You also need a custodial staff (or to contract one out). Sadly, they’re usually very undercompensated. Beyond a certain point, you need a legal team. You definitely need competent accountants.

    I think engineers can do about as well in salary as middle management. Again, though, I’m not talking about compensation, just that you usually need more than engineers. You definitely need someone in charge of “product” because engineers are usually better at figuring out how to do something than whether you can make a viable business out of doing it. There might be exceptions, such as if your business is a consultancy, but then you’re still letting somebody else decide what’s worth doing.

  42. ealloc says

    @PaulBC OK, that’s fair! Management does important work too.

    But to go further, one can simultaneously say that management/marketing is necessary and important labor that should be compensated, while also recognizing that the huge upper management salaries often come largely from capital income due to “ownership” of the tech, rather than due to the value of their labor. And it is fair to ask, how is it just that upper management get so much capital income, rather than the engineers who created the tech?

    And I’m not talking about stock options: One might view the large CEO/upper management salaries (eg, $10m CEO salary) as really capital income which management redirect to themselves because of effective ownership and control they have, due to organizational hierarchies, insider knowledge and personal relationships. That’s how I understand some “hostile takeovers” work, they are led by the CEO and factions of management demonstrating their effective ownership versus of the board/shareholders. A major purpose of “golden parachutes” is to fend off hostile takeovers the CEO might take part in, in case they don’t feel enough capital income is going their way. So the practical (not moral) reason CEOs get so much compensation is their power over the capital, not their labor. Sweet gig if you can get it!

  43. PaulBC says

    ealloc@67 No disagreement there. As I said somewhere above, there are definitely CEOs that move like vampires between companies, sucking them dry and finding another victim. That, of course, is the Panglossian magic of the marketplace. They are highly compensated for destroying companies that are underperforming and liquidating them back into beautiful capital, thus bringing efficiency to the market. I mean, if you look at someone like Carly Fiorina, and she’s not even the worst, she took a highly respected (almost beloved) tech company Hewlett Packard, that created an entire approach to engineering management that is still copied throughout the industry, and treated it like a horse sent to the knackers. But she’ll go to her grave thinking she did something great.

    All that aside, some CEOs actually do build companies. They may be the exception. Also, the ones that succeed with startups are often treated as brilliant when they’re mostly lucky. The ones who show up with an MBA and connections and wind up on boards for whatever reason are another matter. Yes, there are some real leeches.

  44. Aoife_b says

    I feel like we’ve already solved the problem of interfacing a brain with a computer… Eyes, ears, and fingers

  45. adipicacid says

    @Walter Solomon: Reminds me of this:

    “His rate of food consumption and cattle replacement remained abnormally high; but not until modern times, when Charles Ward examined a set of his accounts and invoices in the Shepley Library, did it occur to any person—save one embittered youth, perhaps—to make dark comparisons between the large number of Guinea blacks he imported until 1766, and the disturbingly small number for whom he could produce bona fide bills of sale either to slave-dealers at the Great Bridge or to the planters of the Narragansett Country. Certainly, the cunning and ingenuity of this abhorred character were uncannily profound, once the necessity for their exercise had become impressed upon him.”

    I don’t think Musk’s ethics much better than Joseph Curwen’s.