The Chinese Advantage of Non-Human Primates in Brain-Computer Interface Research.
Pager feverishly moved a joystick as he played his favorite game, Pong, but it was just a force of habit – the joystick itself wasn’t actually connected to anything. Yet the ball moved from paddle to paddle. He was using his thoughts to play, through the use of his direct neural connections from his newly implanted Neuralink device. However, Pager isn’t your typical 9-year-old: he’s a macaque monkey, and he’ll provide valuable information to the company Elon Musk-owned, so they can eventually move forward with human testing for. this invasive medical device. In fact, her gaming performance took place at a live Neuralink event, where people were first introduced to a working implanted model. Pager is also becoming an increasingly valuable and limited resource in global research. More importantly, it can also be a key part of global politics and national security.
As we have seen over the past two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted and exposed weaknesses in medical supply and research. There was no exception for non-human primates used in medical research. As The New York Times reported in February, COVID vaccine researchers have faced global shortages of primates, which are critical to early drug trials. This problem was exacerbated when China, the world’s largest supplier of non-human primates, banned their export. Before the pandemic, China supplied more than 60% of research primates used in the United States. How and when it will return to the export of research primates is not clear.
This is not the first time that we have dealt with the problems of the global supply of primates. India was once the largest supplier of primates until 1978 when concerns about the primates used in US military testing prompted the Indian government to stop the sale. This surge was seen as a response to animal rights groups, as primates used in military tests were often killed. China has filled this void by offering both sourcing and more lenient ethical and regulatory rules. She courted American scientists not only to use her primates but also to come and develop their research in her laboratories. This immediately helped with the supply, but perhaps did not bode well for animal welfare. While Western scientists have reported that primates are not mistreated, it is undeniable that regulatory and ethical frameworks are much more lax. Today, China is perhaps the biggest player in the non-human primate market.
Currently, many companies are developing sophisticated brain-computer interface devices, or BCIs, many of which will need to be tested in primates before starting human trials. These devices are being developed in the context of medical, military and general public devices. They aim to provide new treatments for some of the most difficult diseases in medicine, such as paralysis, apraxia of speech, and even depression. However, they will undoubtedly collect the most sensitive data possible: human thoughts themselves. In fact, researchers recently used a BCI on a paralyzed individual, which enabled him to write with thought dictation.
Primate research is central to China’s stated strategy to dominate the future of biotechnology and artificial intelligence. The development of BCIs is at this link – the “China Brain Project” gives priority to BCIs. Chinese researchers have acknowledged that they are currently lagging behind the United States in developing BCI, but say they could catch up within five to ten years. While this estimate may be overly optimistic, it certainly seems possible, given China’s support and its advantage in primate research.
Since the mid-2000s, China has been working to establish a primate research infrastructure. In doing so, it legitimizes its own research efforts and attracts international partners and clients, drawn by the scale, relatively low cost, and ease of conducting their experiments within Chinese borders. There are currently more than 100 institutions and companies that provide animal models of non-human primates in China. The largest, which is partially operational but still under construction, is the National Resource Center for Non-Human Primates in southwest Yunnan Province. This nationally centralized “resource pool” is designed to meet the needs of China’s goal for future biotechnology dominance.
This strategy of building a primate research infrastructure sophisticated enough to both meet the needs of China’s biotechnology strategy, while also being attractive to foreign entities, is of concern for several reasons. First, the market dominance of primate experiments means that China’s centralized system can deny access when it is strategically advantageous, as if we are experiencing another global pandemic, or if the blocking of US development of a technology would propel China. China’s build-up was, at least in part, a response to bottlenecks in primate research elsewhere, but now it can deploy its own bottlenecks to thwart others. Second, controlling the primate research market lends itself to China’s quest for technology transfer, as foreign entities wishing to experiment with Chinese primates will have to ship their technology and expertise to China. State-of-the-art institutions and enterprises will effectively teach China how to bridge the innovation gap.
Finally, China has created an integrated process of translating primate experiments into human clinical trials through cost and speed incentives. Its aim is to encourage foreign entities to deploy their innovations first in the Chinese domestic market, and in a way that the central government can influence. While foreign researchers may benefit from the lax regulatory framework, they may inadvertently cede valuable intellectual property to China. In addition, China can compile valuable neural data collected by these BCIs, which not only gives them a technical advantage, but can also pose a security risk to the United States, as big data enables surveillance and news. forms of cyberattacks.
The COVID-19-induced shortage of non-human primates in China is expected to serve not only as a global supply chain problem, but also as a warning sign for future technology and drug development. In addition, our gold standard in animal welfare does not make sense if we allow the industry to quietly take a foothold in China for the development of neuro-devices. Now is the time for the United States to bridge the divide of China’s dependence on non-human primates for research. It represents a potential Trojan horse for US technology developers, policymakers, and national security.
Future Tense is a partnership between Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.