Elon Musk has a knack of knowing how to make headlines. With the right word in the right place, he can make live television news broadcasts worldwide. With a single tweet, he can land himself on the front page of every major news website on the planet. He’s a little eccentric, and in the past, he’s occasionally caused trouble for himself with his outbursts and soundbites, but he knows how to work the press. We got evidence of that yet again within the past week when a firm he’s connected with claimed to be capable of creating a real Jurassic Park.
Making Jurassic Park for real has been a lifetime dream for thousands of scientists who watched the very first Jurassic Park movie as children in the early 1990s. The public’s fascination with the films has never wavered since then either. There have been multiple Jurassic Park movie sequels, with more in the pipeline. Jurassic Park video games have been a hit. Even online slots based on Jurassic Park have performed well, with at least three made in the past and more probably due to arrive at Rose Slots in the future. In reality, though, the odds of a real-life dinosaur being brought back from extinction during our lifetimes are probably longer than anything that any of the online slots could ever offer you. You might try to counter that argument by saying that someone always wins the online slots jackpot every once in a while, but that doesn’t seem likely in this case. Let’s look at why.
First off, the claim. The extraordinary suggestion that the technology to re-create Jurassic Park in real life already exists came in a tweet from Max Hodak, the co-founder of Neuralink, on Saturday, April 3rd. Neuralink now belongs to Elon Musk, but Hodak stayed on after the acquisition. In fact, Hodak seemed to be both confident and casual about the suggestion. He said his firm could “probably” build Jurassic Park but that the dinosaurs inside it might not be “genetically authentic.” He followed up by suggesting that fifteen years of genetic engineering and organised breeding programs would result in new, exotic species of dinosaur. When asked to expand upon this groundbreaking proclamation, Hodak tied it to broader ideas about novel biodiversity.
This isn’t the first time that Neuralink has claimed to be capable of something other scientists believe to be impossible. In summer 2020, the company showed off an apparent working prototype of a brain implant which, according to them, will one day make neurological conditions a thing of the past. The implant is said to have the potential to cure any condition from blindness to paralysis. Musk became personally involved in that announcement and exhibited a version of the device that had been implanted in a pig. According to the charismatic Tesla founder, trials on humans are scheduled to begin toward the end of 2021. Whether or not the company has permission for such intrusive, experimental trials is yet to be seen. Neuralink appears to prefer to speak first and then show results later if results are ever shown at all.
So, having dealt with the claim, should Jurassic Park fans get excited? As you’ll no doubt already have guessed from the title of this article, the answer to that question is a very definite “no.” Scientists still aren’t able to make dinosaurs in laboratories. The methodology shown in the first film involved extracting dinosaur DNA from mosquitoes trapped in amber. While it’s possible to extract genetic material from mosquitoes trapped in amber millions of years ago, there’s rarely any workable DNA contained in them. Even if there were, a suitable host would have to be found for the dinosaur cloning process, and science simply isn’t there yet. Neuralink’s claim – or, to be more specific, Max Hodak’s claim – seemed to be that Neuralink currently has access to technologies that aren’t available to other scientists. He’s since tried to walk back that claim. His current position is that when he said “we”, he meant the human race, not specifically Neuralink. Whether he was speaking for Neuralink, the whole scientific community, or the whole human race, he was wrong. The technology still doesn’t exist, and we can’t “probably” build Jurassic Park.
While it’s impossible to clone dinosaurs with the technology we have, it might yet prove possible to bring back woolly mammoths. Dinosaur DNA is simply too old to be useful, even when it’s been preserved inside the belly of an insect frozen in amber. Woolly mammoths died out far more recently than the dinosaurs did, and so their genetic material hasn’t had as much time to degrade. It’s probably possible to clone them already and use elephants as hosts for genetically engineered fetuses, but there are ethical concerns. Just because something is possible doesn’t mean that it ought to be done, and in any event, “Mammoth Park” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as “Jurassic Park.”
We’re yet to see anything useful come from Neuralink. Aside from the press release for the brain implant (which Elon Musk memorably described as a “Fitbit for your skull”), the only contribution that Neuralink has made to the scientific community is a single paper on brain interface platforms, published in October 2019 in the lightly-regarded Journal of Medical Internet Research. There hasn’t been news on the brain implant since Musk debuted it. There hadn’t been any talk of dinosaurs at all until Hodak decided to take to Twitter. We don’t know what – if anything – Neuralink is working on at this present time. The company knows how to get the press’s attention, but thus far, it hasn’t done anything with that attention. The next time it or one of its senior executives decide to do anything to drawn attention, it might be a good idea to have something substantial to show off. If they continue down their current road, they’re likely to end up becoming familiar with the story of the boy who cried wolf. If they have a device capable of drastically improving the lives of people with complex neurological issues, we’d love to see it, but more substance and less talk would be appreciated.