Elon Musk’s brain-computer interface company Neuralink is under investigation by the US Department of Agriculture for possible animal welfare violations amid allegations from current and former employees that the company abused animals in slapdash research leading to “hack job” surgeries spurred by Musk’s rushed timelines.
That’s all according to an exclusive investigation published late Monday by Reuters, which reviewed internal Neuralink documents and records and interviewed over 20 current and former Neuralink employees.
According to Reuters, the USDA Inspector General opened an investigation into Neuralink in recent months at the request of a federal prosecutor. The investigation focuses on possible violations of the Animal Welfare Act, which regulates the treatment of animals involved in research and other activities and is enforced by the USDA. Reuters was unable to determine the full scope of the investigation. The USDA inspector general declined to comment on Reuter’s investigation. Regulatory filings show that Neuralink has passed previous USDA inspections.
However, the revelation of the probe came as several current and former Neuralink employees accused the company of abusing animals. Allegations ranged from sloppy research that led to euthanizing more animals than necessary to “hack job” surgeries that led to needless pain and suffering of animals before they were euthanized.
In one instance in 2021, 25 of 60 pigs used in a study had devices that were the wrong size surgically implanted into their heads. It was an accident that internal documents and people familiar with the matter indicated could have been avoided if researchers were given the proper time to prepare for the experiment.
In two other incidents, Neuralink researchers accidentally implanted a device on the wrong vertebrae of two pigs in two separate surgeries, which could have been avoided if the researchers had simply counted the vertebrae before beginning the surgeries. The fact that it happened twice reportedly frustrated fellow researchers.
According to internal documents, Neuralink’s veterinarian, Sam Baker, advised killing one of the pigs to end its suffering. “Based on low chance of full recovery… and her current poor psychological well-being, it was decided that euthanasia was the only appropriate course of action,” Baker wrote to colleagues a day after the surgery. Reuters noted that Baker added a broken heart emoji to the message.
Reuters also identified four experiments, involving a total of 86 pigs, that were spoiled by human errors. The errors meant that experiments yielded less valuable research results and had to be repeated, requiring the use of yet more animals. Three people who spoke with Reuters attributed the errors to the researchers working in a “pressure-cooker environment.”