Billionaire Elon Musk knows how to get attention. Famous for his successful Tesla Inc. motor company (electric cars and the batteries to run them), Solar City (solar power), SpaceX (private space venture) and other companies, he made his first fortune as a co-founder of PayPal. Musk has a brilliant mind and a Midas touch. When he speaks people listen, and most recently he decided to speak about direct interfaces between human brains and electronic computers.
His newest company is called Neuralink, and Musk says it will use a technology in development called neural lace to enable direct connections between our flesh-and-blood brains and the digital world. For decades, researchers have worked to translate electrical signals in the brain, detected by electroencephalograms (EEG) and other methods, to better understand how the mind works, to explore the functioning of our senses, and even to directly control mechanical devices. Such research provides hope for victims of paralysis and degenerative diseases, permitting them to control artificial limbs, for instance, as well as enabling blind people to see, after a fashion. But what if we could do much more? What if our brains could interact seamlessly with computers without the need for physical interfaces like a keyboard, a mouse, or speech-to-text software?
Surf the web with a mere thought. Perform computer-swift calculations of any kind. Steer your car without touching any controls. Thought would instantly become action.
Musk’s announced reasons for starting Neuralink have to do with a project he co-chairs called Open AI which includes a number of other tech billionaires who believe that, while artificial intelligence is one of the greatest threats to the survival of humankind, it’s a genie that can’t be put back into the bottle. So the best way to save ourselves from falling victim to “evil AI” (like Skynet in the Terminator movies) is to develop “friendly AI” first. Now Musk asserts that the ultimate way to thwart the rise of dangerous AI is to beat computers to the punch by augmenting humans with computer intelligence. We will be the AI—combining both human and computer capabilities to outperform pure computer intelligence alone, and maybe halt the drive to produce true AI completely.
The first step is that seamless brain-computer interface. Neuralink’s neural lace is a kind of mesh that is surgically injected into the brain and spreads itself out from there, connecting with brain cells and eventually becoming fully accepted into the flesh neural network. The claim is that it can detect brain activity with much greater accuracy and less “signal noise” than traditional electrodes. It will certainly be interesting to see how well it can be made to work.
A novel manuscript of mine that’s currently under consideration by several publishers is about this very thing: what happens when truly effective brain-computer interfaces become a reality? It’s only a matter of time, and the possibilities are both breathtaking and frightening. Think of all the services your smart phone provides, except available with a mere thought. Imagine person-to-person networking that would make Facebook look like snail mail. But on the negative side comes the fear of mind control by governments, corporations, or hackers who could plant their own information directly into your brain, and possibly even control your body remotely. My novel also explores the potential abuses of marketing in a world of computer-linked minds (giving a whole new meaning to the concept of persuasion).
Musk, and others, believe that linking ourselves directly to computers is the next step in human evolution, and they’re probably right. There are many other teams working on the concept, including a company called Kernel founded by tech entrepreneur Bryan Johnson. I’m grateful that someone with Musk’s intelligence, tempered by a sincere desire for the betterment of humanity, is taking the lead in this field. Because the potential for abuse is enough to make my brain blow a fuse.