Melding Brain and Computer: Can Elon Musk Really Make It Happen?

Hear ye, hear ye, for Elon Musk has spoketh about the most Elon Musk thing ever.

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Elon Musk has done the most Elon Musk thing ever. (Photo: Reuters)

Elon Musk has done the most Elon Musk thing ever by unleashing yet another bizarre (a word slowly becoming synonymous with the Tesla CEO) and overly-ambitious business plan to the world.

The plan involves implanting electrodes in the human brain to, in the short-term, cure brain injuries, congenital defects, seizure stemming from the brain, and in the long run, merge the human mind with machines to allow people to communicate with each other by simply uploading their thoughts to another person’s mind (among other things).

But wait, what does this really mean?

Neuralink Corp, the company which aims to work on this technology called ‘Neural lace’, was registered as a medical research company in California in July 2016, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Musk aims to use Neural lace to provide the brain with a tertiary digital layer, an addition to what he considers the human brain’s two existing layers – the animal limbic system or the layer of primal instincts, and the advanced cortex, or the layer of reason and rationality. The process is explained in a detailed report of about 40,000 words by Tim Urban on the website Wait But Why, which incidentally also refers to Musk’s imagined contraption as a “wizard hat”.

‘Consensual Telepathy’: Language As We Know It Would Cease to Exist

Ashlee Vance writes in Elon Musk: How the Billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla is Shaping our Future that those who know Musk describe him as someone who’s always in a hurry, to get things done, to complete tasks, to colonise Mars, and so on and so forth.

It was only natural, thus, when Musk came up with the idea of a compressed version of language to make communication faster through a process he terms ‘consensual telepathy’.

If I were to communicate a concept to you, you would essentially engage in consensual telepathy. You wouldn’t need to verbalise unless you want to add a little flair to the conversation or something... There are a bunch of concepts in your head that then your brain has to try to compress into this incredibly low data rate called speech or typing.
Elon Musk to Wait But Why

Ammo Against AI Taking Over the World

For a businessman within the capitalist set-up, Musk seems awfully concerned with the betterment of the human race. Even a preliminary search on Musk would reveal his belief in how mankind is headed towards disaster on a planet nearing its death every single day. He has invested heavily, both time and resources, in bettering humanity’s chances of survival using technology (eg: electric cars, solar-powered houses, interplanetary travel). Musk expresses his unflinching faith in technology when he says:

If you had an Empire State building filled with people — even if they had calculators, let alone if they had to do it with a pencil and paper — one person with a laptop could outdo the Empire State Building filled with people with calculators.

However, he is also aware of its pitfalls, with Artificial Intelligence being one of his biggest concerns.

In a futuristic society, the hegemony that humans enjoy over other creatures simply based on intelligence and rationality would be passed on to machines, which is what freaks Musk out. He has called AI humans’ biggest “existential threat” in the past, stating it to be potentially more dangerous than nuclear weapons.

At a conference in 2016, Musk had reiterated these apprehensions.

If you have ultra-intelligent AI, we would be so far below them in intelligence that we would be like a pet, like a cat, like a house-cat. Honestly, that would be the benign scenario.

A Brain Machine Interface (BMI) seems like adequate protection against an AI takeover of the world, according to Musk.

Role of Machines in Human Progress

Since one of the primary goals of this plan is to increase communication speed, it potentially holds the key to converting individual minds into one humongous consciousness. Consequently, a central mega-sized brain could put humanity on the track of immense progress. Attach a computer and its infinite source of knowledge to this brain and voila!

Musicians would be able to create music by simply imagining it and then passing on the information directly to the instrument, without having to actually learn to play it; engineers could design bridges in minutes with processes like conceptualisation, sketching out of the way now – brainstorming with a computer built into our minds would revolutionise our reality.

More importantly, it might also just help people evolve holistically. As Tim Urban points out:

Emotions are the quintessential example of a concept that words are poorly-equipped to accurately describe. If ten people say, “I’m sad,” it actually means ten different things. In the Wizard Era, we’ll probably learn pretty quickly that the specific emotions people feel are as unique to people as their appearance or sense of humour. This could work as communication — when one person communicates just what they’re feeling, the other person would be able to access the feeling in their own emotional centres. Obvious implications for a future of heightened empathy.

Would This Also Mean Humanity Would Cease to be Human?

Even though right now the project exists only at a conceptual level, it raises questions: Would you be willing to enhance your capabilities manifold if it implied implanting electrodes in your brain? Would this mean that mankind would cease to exist as we know it?

Musk unwittingly answered this question when he said that we are already cyborgs.

We are already a cyborg. You have a digital partial version of yourself online (emails, social media) you basically have superpowers, but the constraint is output – we are output-bound – with two thumbs tapping away, it’s ridiculously slow.

He adds:

You’re already digitally superhuman. The thing that would change is the interface –having a high-bandwidth interface to your digital enhancements.

However, this age of BMIs, or what Tim Urban terms the ‘Wizard Era’, will be one of gradual change. People will not wake up one day to find telepathy enabling micro-chips in their heads – as much as the idea would fascinate sci-fi aficionados.

The wizard era has already begun: But there are thousands of people currently walking around with electrodes in their brain, like those with cochlear implants, retinal implants, and deep brain implants – all benefiting from early BMIs.
Tim Urban, Wait But Why

Musk gives it another decade before Neuralink could be used by a healthy brain.

The Flip Side of This Seemingly Magical Technology

One of the most obvious questions a BMI raises is, will others be able to read your thoughts? Musk replied to this by saying:

People won’t be able to read your thoughts – you would have to will it. If you don’t will it, it doesn’t happen. Just like if you don’t will your mouth to talk, it doesn’t talk.

One can hope this control would also enable the user to be able to keep the conscious mind separate from the subconscious.

Another concern this kind of technology raises is that of surveillance and invasion of privacy. If Neural lace is imagined as an extension of social media, it is at risk of leaving users vulnerable to attack by hackers and cyber-criminals. A digital footprint has already ensured that activities of Internet users are closely watched and documented. In the wrong hands, the technology might be used to gain deeper access into a person’s most private emotions and thoughts. Taking it further, it might be possible that depending on the part of the brain the hacker has access to, thoughts, opinions, ideologies, even moods, can be radically altered.

Another point of concern for researchers and scientists would be to make sure that neural implant technology is advanced enough for the attempt. Musk hasn’t yet specified if the implants would require surgery or any other invasive (or not) methods.

Finding suitable guinea pigs for the procedures might be another hurdle.

And lastly – appeasing the State. The legal complications of a process that involves procedures like these to be performed on a healthy brain is a whole other dimension to be taken care of.

Neuralink, a la SpaceX, seems beyond the realm of human achievement, almost fantastical, with Musk being the only voice expressing his conviction in BMIs. Yet, the idea of a pocket-sized device that could encapsulate extensive information on countless topics or would allow you global connectivity, would have sounded like magic half a century ago. But in the words of Arthur C Clarke, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

(With inputs from Wait But Why.)

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