A MARRIAGE OF MIND AND MACHINE

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.

CREATIVITY UNDER SEIGE? FIND YOUR SOLITUDE

I thought of most of this post while on a power walk for exercise. Alone.

Quiet. Solitude. Time to think.

I had my iPhone with me, but since I give the number out to very few and have almost all notifications turned off, it gave nary a bleep the whole time, and I didn’t expect it to. There is no question that most of my creative ideas come to me when I’m alone: going for a walk in a quiet forest, sitting by the shore of a lake, or settling in for a nap. I depend on it. Heaven forbid that my phone interrupt moments like that. Especially the nap.

A CBC Radio program called Spark touched on this subject recently. Research psychologist Dr. Larry Rosen found that people admit to checking in with their phones every fifteen minutes. I suspect they’re understating their actual use. When we’re instantly notified of every single email, Facebook post, tweet, or IM message sent our way, we can’t resist the urge to check—we get anxious that we might have missed something important. It’s a wonder we can ever complete an original thought. The same Spark episode also featured author Michael Harris whose book The End of Absence is about the loss of silence and solitude, daydreaming, and the opportunities to just be alone with our thoughts. From such moments come the great leaps of intuition that advance science, the arts, literature, and so much more. How would Newton have discovered gravity if, just as the apple was falling toward his head, he’d leaned to the side to read a tweet?

This state of affairs worries me because I only see us becoming more connected as time goes on. Before many more years have passed, our brains will interface directly with computerized augments, whether implanted or attached, which will give us non-stop internet access so completely integrated with our thought processes that we’ll find it difficult (and unnecessary) to distinguish between a search of our own memories and the World Wide Web. I’m in the polishing stage of a novel about that prediction, although it’s set in the early days of that revolution and doesn’t deal with the long term implications all that much.

Imagine full-time brain-to-internet connectivity. How will it be possible to experience solitude then? How will we even cope with all of the distractions? I’m afraid that sparks of genius could be extinguished beneath a flood of constant input. True progress could sputter to a halt.

Fortunately, I think there will always be those who cherish the company of their own thoughts and will reject, at least sometimes, the constant connection to informational stimulus. They’ll embrace occasional solitude and refill the well of ideas that keeps our species moving forward. There could even be a whole new market idea for wilderness resorts: the Internet-free Creativity Zone.

I’m tempted to try this with my waterfront cottage property, and charge big rent to the next Einsteins and Darwins—for the benefit of us all, you understand.