Recently, Elon Musk has been in the news for having purchased Twitter. However, he also owns another company. I am not referring to Tesla or SpaceX. It is potentially more revolutionary than either of these.
This other company, called Neuralink, is much less known than the latter ventures. The goal of the latter company is to merge artificial intelligence with the human brain. According to Musk, unless human beings merge themselves with artificial intelligence, the latter will eventually overtake and control them.
So, for the past six years, Musk’s new company has been engaged in research to link human brains to computers by implanting a “neural lace” in them. This is to be performed by surgically implanting a chip (a tiny transceiver) into the human brain, which contains an expansive network of nano threads containing electrodes at their tips, which are, in turn, robotically guided onto specific parts of the human brain. As a result, the human being with such a brain-computer interface will be able to communicate wirelessly with the internet through thought alone.
The first phase of this project is to aid those who have neurological damage, such as loss of motor function in limbs, to operate computer technology just by thinking. For example, this could potentially permit an amputee to operate an artificial limb. The company has apparently already implanted a chip in the brain of a monkey, thereby enabling this primate to play a computer game just by thinking.
The plot thickens, however, because Musk seeks to create “symbiosis with artificial intelligence,” per Business Insider. This means that there would be a two-way street between computers and human beings. In the case of artificial limbs, the technology would also provide sensory feedback.
For example, not only would the amputee be able to operate an artificial limb by thought alone; the technology would also provide sensory and kinesthetic feedback so that it would feel like one is moving one’s own limb. In the case of scanning the internet with one’s brain, this would involve not only uploading commands from one’s brain by converting analog brain circuits into digital ones (output), but also the reverse (input); that is, downloading information from the internet into one’s brain.
Now, for most of us, the most fundamental form of privacy that exists is that which goes on in our minds. However, if Musk’s technology were to be deployed to create a two-way “symbiosis” between the internet and human brains, it stands to reason that there would no longer be any such privacy. The companies that controlled the internet pipes could have access to your most private thoughts; and so too could any government agencies such as National Security Agency (NSA) that, under current Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) laws, have access to the contents flowing down these pipes.
Drawing out the logical implications of the latter, your brain, like your computer, may become vulnerable to infection with viruses and malicious content. Imagine having downloaded to your brain false content—say a radical conspiracy theory—and having it stored in long-term memory so that it became part of your permanent working memory. Of course, when your computer becomes infected you can refresh your hard drive or get a new computer; but your brain may not be so easily refreshed (without losing your memory and hence personal identity) or replaced.
In the past, protecting your privacy on the internet has been left to the federal government—Federal Communication Commission (FCC) regulations and FISA laws, specifically. Hence, much may depend on how proactive the federal government would be in protecting your privacy and this most fundamental area of freedom of thought and expression—what goes on in your own mind.
With the trend toward strongarm governments throughout the world taking control, this solution may become part of the problem. Totalitarian governments don’t care about freedom of thought or expression and would prefer to control these things. So, relinquishing control of these new technologies to a totalitarian government, or one with tendencies in this direction, could be a recipe for a new world order that makes the likes of that envisioned by George Orwell in 1984 seem archaic and benign.
Is it true that artificial intelligence will take us over, as Musk believes? This is the stuff of science fiction movies that have been produced ad nauseam with this theme. It is true that too much reliance on artificial intelligence can make us over-dependent on them. How good is your sense of direction now that you have become increasingly dependent on global positioning system (GPS) devices? Computers are now building themselves so it is not impossible that we may eventually be replaced by computers.
But do we need to become one of them in order to stop them from overtaking us? Aren’t there better ways such as laws requiring human planning and development of new technologies that serve human beings rather than usurp them?
There is indeed a technological imperative that says, if you can create it, then do so. Unfortunately, this absolutistic injunction is blind to the social problems that the introduction of such new technologies can bring.
Musk predicted that he would be installing chips in humans by 2022, and it does not appear that he is there yet. Also, there is likely to be resistance, at least at first, by the average consumer to have chips implanted in their brains—even though he has claimed that the surgery would be as safe as having Lasik eye surgery. Still, many of us now walk about with our Bluetooth sets fastened to our ears. Just how long it might take to get tired of wearing them on the outside of one’s brain is not clear, especially when it becomes “nerdy” to so wear them.
So, is merging human brains with artificial intelligence truly a good idea? Better to answer this question now than after such technology becomes the new reality.
"Elon Musk on mission to link human brains with computers in four years: report"; Reuters; Reuters Staff; April 21, 2017.
"Elon Musk's company Neuralink plans to connect people's brains to the internet by next year using a procedure he claims will be as safe and easy as LASIK eye surgery"; Business Insider; Rosie Perper; July 17, 2019.