Elon Musk’s neurotechnology company Neuralink is facing a federal investigation involving animal welfare violations, with numerous staff members alleging that the company has caused needless suffering and death amongst its test animals due to rushed studies.

The investigation was started at the request of a federal prosecutor and is being undertaken by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Inspector General, focusing on Animal Welfare Act violation allegations brought forward by more than 20 current and former Neuralink employees, along with a complaint made last February by the animal rights group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

The involvement of the USDA inspector general in such an investigation was described as “very unusual” by Delcianna Winders, the director of the Animal Law and Policy Institute at the Vermont Law and Graduate School; typically the IG focuses on criminal activity, such as dog fighting and cockfighting investigations, rather than looking into animal research facilities.

Although the company’s facilities meet all of the requirements set out by the USDA, Neuralink has reportedly killed approximately 1,500 animals in its brain implant experiments over the past four years, including more than 280 sheep, pigs and monkeys, according to sources with direct knowledge of the company’s animal-testing operations. The 1,500 figure is a rough estimate, due to the company not keeping precise records of the number of animals used in some experiments, such as mice and rats.

While the number of animals killed in the experiments mightn’t directly violate animal welfare laws, the sources say that many of these deaths may have been unnecessary due to failed studies rendered invalid by human error brought about by corporate pressure to produce faster results: an earlier investigation conducted by Reuters uncovered four failed experiments that involved 86 pigs and two monkeys that were compromised by human error, leading to the animals involved being euthanized before the experiment was restarted with a fresh batch of test subjects.

These errors were attributed to a “pressure-cooker” environment fostered at the company, pressure reportedly brought about by Musk’s demand for accelerated progress in developing the company’s neural interfaces. One of the results of this increased pressure was botched surgeries on test animals, caused by an accelerated testing schedule and over-stressed staff; one angry message distributed by an employee complained about the need to improve how the company organizes animal surgeries to prevent what they referred to as “hack-job” procedures being conducted on the test animals.

Five of the sources also raised concerns within the company that a more traditional testing approach, involving testing elements of a study individually and drawing proper conclusions before moving on to the next experiment, was needed; instead, Neuralink conducts studies in quick succession before addressing problems from earlier tests or properly formulating conclusions. The result is that individual tests often need to be repeated, meaning that more animals are needlessly put through the process.

This pressure is coming from the very top of the company, with CEO Elon Musk reportedly dissatisfied with Neuralink’s progress, as rival companies have seen more success in the development of their medical devices, such as Synchron’s implant that allows a user to type text using only their minds; in comparison to the number of animals involved in Neuralink’s trials, Synchron has killed approximately 80 sheep since it launched in 2016.

On numerous occasions, Musk has reportedly told employees “to imagine they had a bomb strapped to their heads” in order to motivate them to work faster, according to three sources; he has also reportedly threatened to trigger a “market failure” at the company if progress failed to meet his expectations.

“There’s this incredible pressure by these Silicon Valley dudes who want their devices on the market, they want to push things forward, but they don’t understand that these things take time,” remarked the director of research advocacy for The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), Ryan Merkley. “That leads to—as we’ve seen—botched experiments and animals suffering.”

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12 Comments

  1. This makes me so angry!!! These animals don’t deserve any of this… and just for some extra cash when he’s already so rich?? Not only is he killing animals he seems to be mentally abusing his staff as well. Sheesh a lot of people truly have so much work to do on themselves.

  2. I’m not condoning animal cruelty but I don’t doubt for a moment that these investigations into Musk’s company are anything but political targeting given his pivot on politics, public statements and revelations about Twitter. Musk was a media darling when it was assumed he was on the left. As soon as he started to openly question certain things he became a capitalist villain.

  3. I am neither ‘left’ nor ‘right’, and I’m also a non-partisan voter. I have always thought that Musk was anything but a genius, and always about his ego going back to the early 2000’s—regardless of what the press was saying about him. In addition, I live in Central Texas where he has pretty much taken over. Politicians are even offering him land, for free, to promote and build his business—which he could well afford on his own. I’ve been on Twitter for years, but I am deactivating that account before Christmas due to the way he treats people (his own employees in particular). We’ve been hearing about Neuralink and some of its issues here for some time.

    The real problem is us. We continue to equate ‘success’ with money, and to overlook serious flaws in those that we hold in high esteem because of their ‘status’.

    Now do you want to know how I really feel? 😁

    1. Yeap. I got rid of my twitter account too.
      Musk is out of control IMHO.

      1. I’m genuinely curious to understand what in particular you find about him that is out of control.

    2. Cosmic, I think that ego is a factor in anyone that achieves great material success – there’s a reason we have one in this plane of existence, after all. As for Musk himself, similar to you, I’ve never thought Musk was a genius in the way the media would have us believe (before it turned on him) – I felt he was more P.T. Barnum than ‘real life Tony Stark’.
      That said though, I respect what he managed to achieve with SpaceX and the vision he had to have to get into commercial space in the way he did.
      On the political spectrum I don’t align with ‘left’ or ‘right’ particularly myself either – I probably feel closest to Autarchism or some sort of radical Libertarianism.
      I work in Tech and personally would not work for Musk but then again I wouldn’t work for Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook etc. for a variety of reasons. I’m not sure that working conditions under Musk are any more or less terrible than under Bezos, Zuckerberg or Cook necessarily. Amazon’s reputation for worker treatment is far worse for example. Unfortunately while you may also refrain from purchasing via Amazon chances are many of the services you use are using Amazon digital infrastructure – divestment is possible but most people are not up to the effort. Similarly, virtually all phones (for that matter electronics in general) are made in China which has horrible working conditions – I’ve never really seen an outrage driven divestment movement for Apple products over their silent support for those conditions, for example.
      My point is that often I see that activism and ‘moral statements’ seem to be largely driven by trends which are in turn driven by whatever is given media exposure and attention. By all means divest from Twitter if it makes you feel good but I would only caution people to really examine what is actually prompting the immediacy of such a decision.
      Musk used to enjoy glowing media coverage and ‘rock star’ status – until recently when the tides completely turned. What changed? The only thing is that he started to speak out against certain narratives as well as reveal the collusion between government and Twitter to manipulate speech. In a time when so many people and institutions are insisting that speech needs to be controlled for “our own good” I think Musk’s efforts to provide more transparency should be supported despite whatever person flaws people see in him. Even if it’s all just lip service – it’s better that we get someone promoting the idea of free speech over censorship.

  4. I think the real issue is: How do you define ‘free speech’? Being free to call out your government and its leaders (whether local, state or federal) is extremely important, and I’m all for civil discourse and debate. I’m not so sure that Musk’s efforts are any more than another exceedingly wealthy guy’s attempt to reinforce his own relevance at the expense of the people who have little wealth or influence (like his own employees, for instance).

    Musk is not ‘out of control’. He knows exactly what he thinks he is doing, because he has been treated very special for a long time, fawned over—and given lucrative government contracts too. I left Twitter not to make myself feel ‘good’. I gave him weeks to improve the platform…and to grow up with his new toy. In addition, as a businessman (which he isn’t) he’s putting his other businesses in jeopardy. Let’s put it this way: I’m a consumer, and I no longer like the product. For a while, Twitter was a nice, albeit free product, but not one that I really need (unlike a really great laundry detergent.)

    Musk’s idea of freedom of speech is saying whatever you darn well please, about anything, or anyone, at any time (except him, of course). So, yeah, if that’s what’s meant by transparency, then the truth, civility and kindness be damned—and I want no part of it.

    So let’s get back to the topic at hand: Neuralink. If he is running that business with the same ‘anything goes’ attitude as he has with Twitter, he is at best ethically challenged, and at worst has no empathy or concern for other living beings.
    https://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/22/technology/musk-twitter-bans.html

    1. To quote Hall’s words about Voltaire “I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This phrase encapsulates the sentiment that I took to heart about the intrinsic value of the first amendment when I came to this country as a child.

      Free Speech is exactly the ability to say what you please (under the constraint that you are not directly inciting violence) without fear of being squelched, silenced or censored by political, religious, ideological or other gatekeepers. That is something that should be protected at all costs. Truth, civility and kindness sound like noble goals but they all have levels of subjectivity and interpretation – who gets to determine that?
      Kindness has its place but not all useful discourse can or should be kind or civil. Whitley’s own experiences attest to the fact that sometimes growth comes from sources that are not necessarily kind, civil, or friendly.

      I haven’t used Twitter in years so I can’t attest to any shifts or changes personally – but what I do know is that Twitter has always been a hot bed of uncivil, unkind, downright nasty people at times – the only difference now seems to be that it is less one-sided in terms of censoring for certain things than it was before Musk. And the revelations about the tight coupling between Government and social media that are being exposed should be cause for concern by anyone.
      I don’t expect Musk to be any more perfect that the average person – we all have flaws, foibles and failings – but even flawed people can help push things forward. Reactions will vary of course. Thanks for the discussion.

    2. “… no empathy or concern for other living beings.” Sounds like the description of a psychopath.

      1. Bingo, you hit the nail on the head!
        I’ll keep this reply short and sweet 😉

  5. If freedom of speech was as you say, then I could have told off employers and bosses with no repercussions. There were repercussions when I spoke out to employers about how they treated female employees. Some worked well, but in the early days , not so much. It was scary and pure hell, especially when employers began to pick on friendly colleagues of mine, simply because they were my friends. Whether it was being treated unfairly due to pay and promotions, or actual sexual harassment, I’ve paid my dues by speaking up. That doesn’t mean that I said whatever I darn-well-pleased or resorted to name-calling. Unfortunately, that’s the world we live in today and freedom of speech has been turned into saying whatever-you-darn-well please-with-name-calling. In Musk’s case, I’ve seen postings by him, on Twitter, that were sexist and misogynistic, so speaking out for him is really just letting his jerky self fly. Is that freedom of speech? I don’t think so, which is why I cannot see him as some way-shower for freedom of speech—-or how to treat people—or how to treat other living beings.

    Freedom of speech, as intended by the founding fathers, was about the freedom to speak out against your government and leadership. Since that time, freedom of speech has evolved/devolved into not only expressing opinions, but into lying and hatred being accepted as perfectly ok.

    1. ^ eloquently stated and I am glad you have spoken up and the fact imho that Musk is totally fine torturing animals to help his dystopian hell vision of humans being wired into the internet gives me chills. How about a cure for Cancer versus trying to get a pig to play Pac Man or something.

      His God complex will be his downfall but that’s just my take.

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