If you’re thinking to yourself, “The title of this article sounds like it belongs in Hollywood, not science,” you are surprisingly mistaken. Elon Musk just unveiled his plans to revolutionize the human-technology relationship by creating a company whose sole mission is to link the human brain with computers.
Although this technological advancement was inevitable to some, especially given the fact that Musk has voiced his support of using technology to advance human intelligence on numerous occasions, the launch of his company doesn’t come without concerns. Will merging our brains with computers further accelerate the collective consciousness or is this a step in the wrong direction? How will this alter the human experience and our connections? Will this benefit society as a whole or will only the elite be able to afford it, further perpetuating social division and separatism?
Musk’s New Company That’s Linking Brains to Computers
Earlier this week, Elon Musk launched his newest company, Neuralink, which is in the process of developing a “neural lace” technology, meaning that users would be able to communicate directly with machines without using a physical interface.
More specifically, Neuralink would implant electrodes into the brain, allowing individuals to upload or download their thoughts to or from a computer. This would also enable humans to access greater intelligence and more advanced cognitive abilities.
“Long Neuralink piece coming out on @waitbutwhy in about a week. Difficult to dedicate the time, but existential risk is too high not to,” he tweeted.
Musk has actually been featured on Wait But Why before, a blog operated by Tim Urban, where many of his businesses and the science and inspiration behind them were reported on. If you’re ever confused about how Musk’s operations work, I’d highly recommend reading these blog posts. I’m actually a fan of the writing style on WBW because Urban has an uncanny ability to explain complex concepts in an accessible and understandable way.
Although the notion of brain-computer communication may seem far-fetched, implanting electrodes into human beings isn’t a new concept, as it’s already being used to treat Parkinson’s disease. According to the Wall Street Journal, Neuralink’s technology could be used to treat other brain disorders as well, including epilepsy and more severe cases of depression.
Musk isn’t the only one hoping to develop a relationship between the brain and computers, either, as Facebook is already researching a similar technology through Building 8, its secret hardware division. The social media giant is designing a noninvasive brain-computer interface technology that will enable users to communicate with external hardware devices. Researchers at the University of California and Duke University are also creating brain-computer interface technology that gives people with paraplegia the ability to walk again.
Musk hopes that one day these implants will be able to advance brain function for even healthy people, giving us a competitive advantage against artificial intelligence (AI). Musk has voiced his opinion a number of times on the rise of AI, as he thinks that merging with AI is perhaps the best way to prevent robots from taking over all human tasks. Although I don’t think this is much of a cause for concern, the scientific community has had heated debates on the topic.
Even if AI does progress to the point that they begin to take over many low-income jobs, particularly those within the manufacturing and service industries, this doesn’t really pose a threat to us. Yes, robots will inevitably take over some of the workforce, but this just means that we will have more time and resources to access our creativity and develop and harness other skills in order to further advance society. AI doesn’t have to represent the end of the human workforce, but rather can be seen as a step toward a more progressive society.
Nevertheless, Musk has expressed his concerns that AI will eventually take over the world, treating the average human being like a pet. He believes that neural lace could prevent an individual from becoming a “house cat” to AI. Musk also supports the implementation of a Universal Basic Income (UBI), as he believes it will be necessary once people start to lose their jobs to AI.
Again, even if AIs take our jobs, it could be an excellent opportunity for us to progress as a society because it will free up more of our time to do things that are truly meaningful for the world. Perhaps a UBI isn’t a bad idea, and it would actually be easier than you’d think to implement given that there is already enough money for everyone to thrive on Earth; it’s simply a matter of reallocating it from the elite and to the rest of the population.
Drawing Parallels From Hollywood
If the first thing you thought of after reading the title of this article was, “That sounds like a plot for a movie,” you’re not wrong. Tons of movies and TV shows have touched upon AI taking over the world or people merging themselves with AI to progress the human race.
The first thing I thought of after learning that Musk was launching a company to develop neural lace technology was actually two television shows: Black Mirror and West World. Season 1 Episode 3 of the TV series Black Mirror is set in an alternative reality whereby humans can have “grains” implanted into their brains that record all of their experiences, which can then be downloaded onto a computer.
Essentially, people’s memories could be downloaded onto a computer, allowing people to literally “play back” their memories in front of their own eyes or on a television screen for all to see. Of course, there were benefits to this, like being able to share past experiences with friends, having perfect memory recall, or exposing the truth of events or interactions. However, it had its downfalls, as it encouraged people to live in the past, there was a severe lack of privacy, and it disconnected people from each other and the present moment.
What if neural lace technology is only the beginning, and it eventually leads to a full merging of the brain to computers? Can privacy ever be kept if this occurs, and will it encourage us to live in the past?
Even worse, what if it eventually lets us delete our memories? This concept was discussed in the TV series West World, a show about an amusement park that’s filled with AI that look exactly like real human beings. The robots are so lifelike that they experience feelings like love, pain, and loss, but at the end of the day most of them have their memories erased. What if downloading our memories leads to our being able to delete them, too? Obviously this is far-fetched, but so was the idea of neural lace technology thirty years ago. Musk himself has even theorized that we’re all living in a computer simulation, so who’s to say anything is impossible?
It may seem foolish to compare science to Hollywood, but ultimately some of what’s presented in Hollywood has a lot of truth within it. This industry often capitalizes on current trends and is used to feed us propaganda and desensitize us to real-world concepts like UFOs, foreign affairs, and international conflict. After all, corporations and even government organizations collude with the entertainment industry.
For example, the CIA has an entire department dedicated to the entertainment industry. It’s run through the CIA’s Entertainment Industry Liaison Office, which collaborates in an advisory capacity with filmmakers. The CIA doesn’t just offer guidance to filmmakers, it even offers money. In 1950, the agency bought the rights to George Orwell’s Animal Farm and then funded the 1954 British animated version of the film.
So, perhaps Hollywood has created so many movies on AI as a way to desensitize us and prepare us for the inevitable? I’m not suggesting that any of this is fact, but it’s just interesting to draw parallels between the industry and the topic of AI.
At the end of the day, AI isn’t something that needs to be feared. Recently, there’s been a lot of talk within the scientific community on how AI poses a threat to the workforce and that “a world full of AI could be a world devoid of consciousness.” What so many people seem to be forgetting is that we are fundamentally connected to everything in the universe and that everything in the world is made up of consciousness, both of which include AI.
In some way, AI is a reflection of the collective consciousness, so no matter what happens, it will serve us. Even though AI technically poses a threat to many jobs, this will simply allow us to have more time to do what we love and focus on advancing society and heightening our creativity.
People feared the Industrial Revolution for the exact same reason that they fear AI: They were scared they’d lose their jobs. However, if we learned anything from that time, it’s that more jobs will open up and it will only help advance our society. Of course, there are many things we need to be cautious of when it comes to AI, but if we design AI with the intention of benefiting the collective, then AI isn’t something to fear, but rather embrace.