Future Tense

China’s Unexpected Advantage in the Global Competition Over Brain-Computer Interfaces

A monkey playing a video game with a use of a special joystick and neural connections.
Neuralink/YouTube

Pager was feverishly moving a joystick as he played his favorite game, Pong, but it was merely a force of habit—the joystick itself was not actually connected to anything. Yet the ball moved from paddle to paddle. He was using his thoughts to play, through use of his direct neural connections from his newly implanted Neuralink device. Pager isn’t your typical 9-year-old, though: He is a macaque monkey and will provide valuable information to the company owned by Elon Musk, so it may eventually move forward with human testing for this invasive medical device. In fact, his gaming performance was at a live Neuralink event, in which people were first introduced to a working implanted model. Pager is also becoming an increasingly more valuable and limited resource in global research. Even more significant, he may also be a key component to global politics and national security.

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As we have seen over the past two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has stressed and exposed weaknesses in medical supply and research. There was no exception for nonhuman primates used in medical research. As the New York Times reported in February, COVID vaccine researchers were met with global shortages on primates, which are critical to early drug trials. This problem was exacerbated when China, the majority global supplier of nonhuman primates, banned their export. Prior to the pandemic, China supplied more than 60 percent of the research primate used in the United States. How and when it will return to exporting research primates is unclear.

This is not the first time we have dealt with global primate supply issues. India once represented the largest supplier of primates, until 1978, when concerns over the primates being used in U.S. military testing pushed the India government to stop the sale. This push was seen as a response to animal rights groups, as the primates used in military testing were often killed. China filled that void by offering both supply and more lenient ethical and regulatory rules. It courted U.S. scientists not only to use its primates but also come and develop their research in its labs. This immediately helped with supply, but perhaps did not bode well for animal welfare. While Western scientists have reported the primate are not mistreated, there is no denying the regulatory and ethical frameworks are far laxer.  Today, China is perhaps the largest player in the market for nonhuman primates.

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Currently, many companies are developing sophisticated brain-computer interface devices, or BCIs, many of which will need to be tested on primates before starting trials on humans. These devices are developing in medical, military, and consumer device setting. They aim to offer new treatments in some of medicine’s most difficult maladies, such as paralysis, speech apraxia, and even depression. However, they will be collecting, arguably, the most sensitive data possible: human thoughts themselves. In fact, researchers recently used a BCI on an individual with paralysis, allowing them the opportunity to write with thought dictation.

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Primate research is critical to China’s stated strategy of dominating the future of both biotechnology and artificial intelligence. The development of BCIs lies at this nexus—the “China Brain Project” prioritizes BCIs. Chinese researchers have acknowledged that they currently lag the U.S. in BCI development but claim they could catch up within five to 10 years. While that estimate might be overly optimistic, it certainly seems possible, given China’s support—and its advantage in primate research.

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Since the mid-2000s, China has been working to build up primate research infrastructure. In the process, it is legitimizing its own research efforts as well as attracting international partners and customers, enticed by the scale, relatively low cost, and ease of conducting their experiments within Chinese borders. There are more than 100 institutions and businesses that provide non-human primate animal models in China currently. The largest, which is in partial operation but still under construction, is the National Resource Center for Non-human Primates in the southwest Yunnan province. This nationally centralized “resource tank” is geared toward meeting the needs of China’s aim for future biotech domination.

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This strategy of building primate research infrastructure sophisticated enough to both meet the needs of Chinese biotechnology strategy, while also being appealing to foreign entities, is concerning for a few reasons. First, domination of the primate experiment market means that the China’s centralized system can deny access when strategically advantageous, like if we experienced another global pandemic, or if stalling U.S. development of a technology would propel China’s own. China’s buildup was, at least in part, been a response to primate research bottlenecks elsewhere—but now it can deploy its own bottlenecks to stymy others. Next, control of the primate research market lends itself to China’s quest for technology transfer, as foreign entities who wish to do experiments with Chinese primates will have to ship their technology and expertise to China. Institutions and companies on the cutting edge will effectively be teaching China how to close the innovation gap.

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Finally, China has created an integrated process of translating primate experiments into human clinical trials through cost and speed incentives. Its aim is to entice foreign entities to deploy their innovations to China’s domestic market first, and in ways that the central government can influence. While foreign researchers may benefit from the lax regulatory setting, they may inadvertently be handing over valuable intellectual property to China. Further, China may compile valuable neural data collected by these BCIs that gives them not only a technical advantage, but also may pose security risk to the U.S., as Big Data allows for surveillance and new forms of cyber-attacks.

The COVID-19-induced nonhuman primate shortage from China should serve not merely as a problem of global supply chain, but as a warning sign for future tech and drug development.  Additionally, our gold standard for animal welfare is meaningless if we allow industry to quietly move into China for neuro-device development. The time has come for the U.S. to close the gap on Chinese dependence on non-human primates for research. It represents a potential trojan horse for U.S. tech developers, policy makers, and national security.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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