This site published an article back in 2019 on “smart chips for the brain.” It quoted Northwestern University neuroscientist and business professor Dr. Moran Cerf saying, “In as little as five years, super smart people could be walking down the street; men and women who’ve paid to increase their intelligence.”
Well, here we are, five years later. … and at the end of January, Elon Musk announced on Twitter (X) that the first human had received a Neuralink implant, a device called Telepathy. We’re not sure if he is super smart yet. But if Telepathy works as planned, he may have a variety of new capabilities.
Neuralink is not the first company to develop brain-machine interfaces.
People have understood that we can use electrical stimuli to provoke nerve reactions for hundreds of years. In 1969, the first cochlear implant restored a sense of sound to a patient. In 2012, BrainGate developed a device that allowed a paralyzed woman to drink from a bottle, using her thoughts to control a robot arm.
Historically, work in brain-computer interfaces (BCI) has focused on restoring function to people with degenerative neurological diseases or spinal injuries. More recently, startups such as Precision Neuroscience, Synchron, and Neuralink are trying to turn BCI technology into something usable by a wider patient pool.
Again, Neuralink is not the first company to put a device in a human’s brain, but its device can record far more information than previous ones.
Neuralink is also the first device surgically placed by a robot. The implant threads are so fine they can’t be inserted by a human hand, which is why Musk’s team developed a robot surgeon to perform the task. The robot removes a piece of the skull and then weaves electrodes and superfine wire into the brain.
What does Neuralink do?
Ramses Alcaide, CEO of Neurable, a neurotech company developing non-invasive, brain-computer interfaces in the form of headphones, explains the planned uses of Neuralink:
According to Neuralink’s website, the company’s initial goal is to help those immobilized by paralysis regain lost skills of communication. Down the line, it intends to pursue restoring motor, sensory and visual functions as well as treatment of neurological disorders.
“A Neuralink-like device has the potential to enhance human memory, processing speed and cognitive abilities by creating a direct interface between the human brain and digital devices,” Alcaide said.
Brain-computer interfaces can be used to control prosthetics or exoskeletons. This use case would enable people with paralysis or amputations to regain a certain level of mobility and independence, according to Alcaide.
Neuralink’s main focus is to help people who are unable to speak or write communicate with others by allowing them to control a virtual mouse, keyboard or send messages by thought.
For example, someone with paraplegia would be able to manipulate a computer or mobile device using speech or text synthesis to surf the web and create digital art.
By monitoring brain activity, brain-computer interfaces can also detect changes that may indicate neurological conditions such as epilepsy, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease, Alcaide said.
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To someone with any of the aforementioned disorders, diseases, or injuries, Neuralink might sound like a Godsend.
But it does have other potential uses, which we’ll get to in a moment.
Move fast and break things
If this sounds ambitious, it is, and the development schedule has been delayed because Musk did not get testing approvals as quickly as he originally planned. In 2022, Neuralink came under federal investigation after employees claimed that experiments were being rushed, leading to unnecessary animal deaths. In more standard research settings, a scientist will thoroughly analyze what happens when an animal dies during testing before moving on to further animal trials. This is a time-consuming process.
In 2021, rival company Synchron’s recipient of a brain implant posted a message to Twitter using only his brain. Synchron’s BCI technology differs slightly from Neuralink’s, and the implantation is minimally invasive. Their success drove Musk to push his employees even harder. He is known to “move fast and break things.”
Except animals aren’t just “things,” which most people seem to intuitively understand, even if Elon Musk doesn’t. Of the 23 monkeys tested on in Neuralink’s labs, 15 were euthanized or died, sometimes after extreme suffering. In some cases, the deaths were linked to infection or hemorrhage after the electrodes were inserted. In one case, a male monkey was found missing some of its fingers and toes, likely caused by stress-induced self-mutilation.
Neuralink had paid to use some facilities at University of California-Davis for its animal research. During an investigation, UC-Davis had to hand over hundreds of pages of research material showing that animals suffered from chronic infections, seizures, paralysis, and painful side effects following the experiments
Other groups, like BrainGate and Synchron, are also working on brain-computer interfaces to improve the lives of people with debilitating medical conditions. But they’re working on less invasive procedures involving fewer animal testing deaths.
Why is Musk so hell-bent on this specific type of BCI device?
More importantly, if this technology is really about helping people with debilitating medical conditions, why does Elon want one himself, as he has publicly stated? He looks pretty healthy to me.
Elon Musk has been making his fears of AI public for years. In 2020, Musk said he believed, “We’re headed toward a situation where AI is vastly smarter than humans, and I think that time frame is less than five years from now. But that doesn’t mean that everything goes to hell in five years. It just means that things get unstable or weird.”
In a 2023 interview with Tucker Carlson, Musk said that he thought AI had the potential for civilizational destruction. He thought it could be used to manipulate public opinion and required regulatory safeguards, noting that we should not assume civilization is robust. He believes ChatGPT4 is already “better” than humans at producing poetry.
To compete with AI, Musk believes that we will need to merge with it. He believes that devices like Neuralink will allow people the option of adding a layer of superintelligence to their consciousness.
How realistic is this?
A lot of neuroscientists are skeptical. John Donoghue, a neuroscientist at Brown, said in response to Musk’s BCI goals, “I think it’s dismissive of the level of complexity of the whole thing.”
Musk has shown some ignorance of brain conditions before. For example, In a 2019 interview with Lex Fridman, he said he thought Neuralink could “solve” diseases like autism or schizophrenia. Except neither one of those is considered a disease; autism is a developmental disability and schizophrenia is a mental disorder, often characterized by abnormal patterns of activity within the brain. Implanting devices into organs of which our understanding is incomplete could lead to disaster.
“Some of the major disasters of mankind have been produced by the narrowness of men with a good methodology,” Alfred North Whitehead, The Function of Reason (1929)
I think this describes Musk. He has let himself get sucked into one thought pattern regarding AI, and he does not appropriately consider the knowledge of people who have devoted their lives to neuroscience. He is bent on developing his answer to AI in his way. He is approaching this with the fervor of a religious person rather than the dispassionate curiosity that used to characterize scientists.
If “religious” seems like the wrong word, it’s not. Silicon Valley is quite interested in consciousness and spirituality. Big tech executives have been flocking to the Esalen Institute for years, a hub for New Age spirituality that opened up in the 1960’s. New Age spirituality is big business: it’s politically influential and is in love with the hyper-consciousness that our emerging BCI could theoretically achieve in transhumanism. It focuses a lot on untapped human potential, which explains Silicon Valley’s attraction.
I can’t find any evidence that Elon Musk has ever had anything to do with the Esalen Institute; he’s never claimed to be particularly religious. But his obsession with the human-AI merger is not his alone. There’s a whole school of thought, the conscious evolution movement, that shares his beliefs regarding the merger between man and machine. And these beliefs are not something the average American would probably align with.
Elon Musk has done a lot of amazing things.
I hate bashing Elon Musk, because so many people love to hate on him. I’m grateful for his Twitter purchase; I’m grateful that he’s pro-human. He makes average people feel good about themselves, in contrast to the climate-disaster crowd spewing nothing but self-hatred and despair.
But Neuralink has too many problems. It seems like massive risk for limited reward. What if someone’s BCI device got hacked? What if the wrong device picked up your thoughts? In a world of social credit scores, this seems like a disaster waiting to happen. Even in a world without social credit scores, I can easily imagine finding myself in a variety of embarrassing scenarios.
What could widely available BCI devices do to competition in sports? In business? I’ve never heard any talk about mandating these kinds of devices, especially since we don’t even know how well they work yet, but let’s assume they work. Let’s assume BCI devices grant wearers enough of an advantage in school and business that some kind of elite forms. Will average citizens find that they can’t make a living for themselves without one?
I think Elon should stick to space and X. He’s awesome at those. You don’t have to test rockets on animals. X has become far more interesting since his takeover. However, he is not a neuroscientist or an ethicist, and BCI devices need to be developed by teams of people with a more thorough appreciation of those fields.
Musk’s concerns about AI are probably valid. But I don’t think the correct answer is to merge with it. I don’t think I need a device in my brain to achieve my full potential. I’d rather exhaust all the traditional options of self-improvement first.
But I could be wrong.
What do you think? Do you feel there are good uses for this technology? How far do you think they’ll go with it? Are you concerned about this? Let’s discuss it in the comments section.
Source: The Organic Prepper
Marie Hawthorne is a lover of novels and cultivator of superb apple pie recipes. Marie spends her free time writing about the world around her.
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