In contrast to Neuralink's prototype, which connects to the brain through dozens of thin wires and is meant to eventually be small enough to sit inside the skull and transmit wirelessly, Copeland’s consists of four spiky silicon electrode pads in his brain (called Utah arrays), connected to the outside world through sockets atop his head. They let him control robots and computers, and they have sensations sent back into his brain.
Since 2014 Copeland has been part of a research project at the University of Pittsburgh led by researchers Michael Boninger and Andrew Schwartz. We interviewed him about Neuralink’s news.
What do you think of Elon Musk’s plans for a brain-computer interface?
Well, it’s pretty cool. It seemed like maybe it will work the way they want down the road, but it probably doesn’t work that way now. A couple of years ago, when I heard he was working with a neural interface, I said I would be there in a heartbeat. I was joking, but it’s interesting to think about what I am going to do when I get explanted. I am coming up on my five years. Then the FDA says my implants may have to come out. Neuralink talked about the longevity of the implant and also a large number of electrodes. I always say I wish they had put more wires into me.
Why do you wish they’d put in more electrodes?
Basically, the more electrodes you have, the more neurons you record from, so I would imagine higher-degree tasks would be more manageable. I am limited to thinking about my right arm and hand. I thought it would be good to have more control. I always want to play more video games.
What was your job before the accident?
I was going to school at Penn State, Fayette, for nanofabrication, so I didn’t have a job, I was in school.
Do you consider having a brain implant a job?
Haha. Yes, and I wish the government did, too. But that is a whole rant about disability and stuff. I spend 12 hours a week at the lab doing testing, and I drive an hour each way. I have a monthly compensation, plus mileage and tolls.
What’s your job title?
Ooh. Research participant? “BCI [brain-computer interface] pioneer” is what Blackrock calls us. Blackrock is the company that makes the Utah arrays, which I have four of.
What does it feel like to be able to control things with your mind?
Ooh. Very cool. When you have an accident like mine, and you are limited to what you can do, and limited in what you can interact within your environment, doing something like this is very cool and very rewarding, even if there are no health benefits.
What’s your favorite thing to do with the interface?
I like playing video games. So far, I play Sonic Hedgehog 2 mostly. I really want to play Final Fantasy XIV, and I have played Pac-Man Championship Edition DX. Usually, I just let them do the regular beneficial science stuff, though.
What would you do if you had Elon Musk’s brain implant?
I would play games on it. Honestly, that is what I would do. I used to love playing video games and I can’t get at the same level anymore.
You have implants that convey the sense of touch to your brain. What does that feel like?
I have two implants in the somatosensory cortex. The sensations really depend—they range from pressure, tingling, warmth, vibration, sometimes tapping. The impressions are at the base of my fingers, near my palms, or the knuckle.
Does it feel real?
Yes and no. Some of them, like pressure and tapping, are pretty close to the natural real-world analog. The tingles are not unnatural, but they have less obvious comparisons to sensations I would have felt before my accident. But now it’s second nature; they are natural to me at this point.
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