The beginning of a new era where technology melts with humans?

At the end of August, via a live webcast, Elon Musk updated the world on the progress of Neuralink, the brain-computer interface company he founded in 2016.

Musk, as a maverick technologist, who is also CEO of cutting-edge electric automobile manufacturer Tesla and space exploration company SpaceX, outlined a bold vision for the future of humanity.

Musk’s world of tomorrow is one in which cybernetically augmented super-humans are, not just able to overcome the scourge of disease and disability, but wholly transcend their physical form via direct integration with machines and technology.

To use Musk’s own words, Neuralink’s implantable device is “like a Fitbit in your skull”. Comprised of super-thin threads that carry electrodes, the technology is intended to facilitate high throughput communication to external computers and, potentially, secondary “links” placed elsewhere in the body.

The neural chip will be inserted surgically by a robot, which is designed to plant the chip and wires while avoiding damage to the brain or blood vessels. Musk says that the process takes hours, and leaves only a small scar. Neuralink is supposed to pick up on signals in the brain and then translate them into motor controls. Many in the field imagine using these neural interfaces to control things like a prosthetic limb, or perhaps to interact with other gadgets.

Neuralink is far from its ultimate aim of making brain surgery as easy and safe.

Musk described Neuralink’s project, overall, as helping to “achieve symbiosis with artificial intelligence.”

Researchers have been interested in brain-computer interfaces for decades. The Department of Defense got involved in the 1970s, spurred on by visions of a superhuman army. Other neuroscientists have tried to develop devices in a clinical setting. Brain implants show some promise in restoring movement to someone whose spinal connections have been severed, or in controlling the tremors associated with Parkinson’s.

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In recent years, technologists have also taken an interest in neural interfaces. If these devices can help people control a prosthetic arm then they could also allow people to ‘thought type’ without using a keyboard or control their smart home devices without voicing a command. A brain-computer interface could, in theory, unlock an entirely new way for humans to interact with the digital world.

Musk isn’t the only one chasing this vision. Bryan Johnson, the founder of Braintree, has been at work for years on a similar startup called Kernel. Paradromics has begun work on a medical-facing neural interface, “building at a scale that is 10 times what Neuralink is doing”, according to its CEO, Matt Angle. Mark Zuckerberg is also invested in brain-computer interfaces. At Facebook’s developer conference in 2017, the company demonstrated a technology that would supposedly allow people to “hear with their skin”, and last year, Facebook acquired the startup CTRL Labs, which is building a non-invasive neural interface.

The difficulty in these projects, especially invasive ones, like Neuralink, isn’t just building the device itself. There’s also the brain, a biological hellscape that tries to swallow up any foreign material that gets put there. Creating a neural chip that can be used in humans requires years of clinical trials and the FDA must approve these devices. And to achieve Neuralink’s ultimate goal of connecting human to machine, it will first have to persuade healthy people to open up their skulls to receive the implant.

Disabled people are likely to have had their attention piqued by Musk reiterating that, in the first instance, Neuralink would be looking to “solve important brain and spine problems”.

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In fact, throughout the presentation, several chronic and life-limiting conditions were cited as being potentially treatable by Neuralink, ranging from blindness, spinal cord injuries, memory loss, brain damage, and even depression. The company’s first round of clinical trials will, indeed, focus on patients with spinal cord injuries.

What is perhaps more tantalizing is that it is abundantly clear that Musk’s ambitions for Neuralink go well beyond just helping disabled people. Elon Musk has gone on the record multiple times to convey his concerns on the threat to humanity posed by artificial intelligence.  

He sees a future in which A.I. outpaces human beings and can no longer be held in check and has described the technology as being a greater threat to human survival than that posed by nuclear weapons.

Neuralink was, in essence, born from Musk’s transhumanist ambition to maintain the whip hand over super-intelligent machines and AI.

“On a species level, it’s important to figure out how we coexist with advanced AI, achieving some AI symbiosis such that the future of the world is controlled by the combined will of the people of the earth. That might be the most important thing that a device like this achieves” Musk said during the presentation.

Notwithstanding the imminent rise of the cyborgs, there are, naturally, more short-term commercial opportunities ripe for exploitation.

There is no doubt that the medical intent of this technology can have a positive implication. However, the long-term goal of acting as a weapon of defense against Artificial Intelligence leads us to think about a series of disturbing scenarios: if humans are forced to upgrade themselves to compete with the capabilities of the A.I., then does the dangerousness of this technology will really be so devastating?

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Perhaps it is difficult to imagine it, but if, as predicted, the ability of the A.I. will significantly exceed our mental faculties, it will be like dealing with a God who knows everything about us and can predict our moves, and even our thoughts. If this were true, we would instinctively be inclined to stand still or isolate ourselves as much as possible to try to safeguard ourselves. Moreover, if the A.I. wanted to get in our way he could do easily creating a reality in which everything could be against us, since, by now, any data would be manipulable at will, and in turn, it would be easy to convince other people of what we are not.

If so, Elon Musk would be right to look for a way to protect humans.

It has to be said, however, that certain abilities, such as being more immune to certain diseases, or acquiring more brain skills, could still be improved through a different way of life: a quieter life, higher quality food, cooperation, and greater introspection that technology itself could provide.