With the massive strides in sustainable transportation made by Tesla and the continuing progress of SpaceX in its aspiring journey to colonize Mars, Elon Musk has repeatedly demonstrated remarkable ambition.
Neuralink, a neurotechnology firm co-founded by Elon in 2016, hopes to deliver on an even more grandiose pursuit. Alongside global warming and the possibility of human extinction, Musk is heavily concerned with another existential threat. The advancement of Artificial Intelligence.
In this case, the solution goes beyond addressing ‘what humans do’ towards fundamentally altering ‘what humans are’.
The specific objective of Neuralink is to develop ultra-high bandwidth brain-machine interfaces to connect humans and computers. Practically, this materializes as a chip that is implanted into the brain to achieve a “sort of symbiosis with artificial intelligence” that can significantly preserve and enhance our brains.
While the company’s current focus with the early versions of this implant is to understand and treat brain injuries and disorders, Musk believes this technology is an important step to ensuring a well-aligned future alongside Artificial Intelligence.
“With [any] AI scenario, we will be left behind. With a high bandwidth, brain-machine interface, we can actually go along for the ride.”
Our brains function through a large network of neurons communicating through neurotransmitters at the connection points known as synapses. These neurotransmitters are released in response to electrical spikes called action potentials. Everything that we perceive, feel, hear and think are essentially these neural spikes.
By inserting minuscule electrodes threads, Neuralink can detect and record the action potentials and selectively stimulate neurons across diverse brain areas. These threads will be applied delicately by robots to minimize damage to the brain and attached to sensors that, in their preliminary form, will be wirelessly connected via Bluetooth to a mobile app for self-sufficient usage.
Appearing on the Joe Rogan podcast on the 7th of May, Musk suggests that the first human trials for Neuralink could be carried out “within a year”. Elon maintains that the first few iterations of the product will be solely focused on offering patients medical treatment for a variety of brain-related injuries. From recognising and prohibiting epilepsy in real-time to fixing stroke damage and even assisting the elderly with memory retention, Neuralink hopes to make tremendous strides in improving the welfare of the human population.
Regarding the trepidation towards eventual human-AI symbiosis, Elon responds “It’s optional.”
In truth, Musk claims, “humans are already partly cyborgs”. With our mass dependency on our phones and personal computers, the only difference between the current state and one with AI-symbiosis is that the “data rate” or “communication speed” between us and the electronics right now is extremely slow.
By facilitating rapid information access and augmenting intellectual capacity, the Neuralink interface could enable users with substantial productivity growth, potentially “by a factor of ten”. The discussion also expanded to consider the possibility that this future technology could make verbal communication obsolete, giving a prospective timeline of five to ten years.
If you think this sounds like the perfect setting for a Black Mirror dystopia, you’re not alone.
Naturally, the major concern for such technology is security. Getting your phone or computer hacked may be an inconvenience, but when the technology directly influences the function of your brain, the stakes are monumental. Additionally, if and when this device enters the reach of public consumers, the affordability gap could result in an extensive upsurge in social and economic inequality due to the resulting cognitive benefits.
As per regulation, Neuralink’s products will be subject to the approval of the US Food and Drug Administration. Musk believes that the development of the interface will be a slow process and promises that the transition to the later versions that will more closely resemble human-AI symbiosis will be gradual enough that “you will see it coming”.
Is Elon Musk being overambitious with this revolutionary mission? If we can’t beat AI, is the best option to join them? Given the exponential acceleration of technology, the prospects of such a device are endless. Undeniably positioned to have a palpable impact on society, Neuralink ends up leaving us with more questions than answers on the possible trajectory of human evolution.
Image credit: Sujins