Recently, Elon Musk was in the news for acquiring Twitter. However, he also owns another company. I’m not referring to Tesla or SpaceX. It may be more revolutionary than any of them.
The company, called Neuralink, is far less well-known. The latter company aims to fuse artificial intelligence with the human brain. According to Musk, unless humans merge with artificial intelligence, the latter will eventually overtake and control them.
So for the past six years, Musk’s new company has been working on the research of connecting the human brain to computers by implanting “neural networks” in it. This is achieved by surgically implanting a chip (tiny transceiver) into the brain that contains an extensive network of nanowires whose tips contain electrodes that are in turn guided by robots to specific parts of the brain. Thus, a person with such a brain-computer interface will be able to communicate wirelessly with the internet just by thinking.
The first phase of the project is to help people with neurological impairments, such as loss of motor function in extremities, be able to operate computer technology just by thinking about it. For example, this could allow amputees to operate prosthetics. The company has apparently implanted chips in the brains of monkeys, allowing the primates to play computer games just by thinking.
However, the plot gets more complicated as Musk tries to create a “symbiotic relationship with AI,” according to business insider. This means there will be a two-way channel between computers and humans. In the case of prosthetics, the technology will also provide sensory feedback.
For example, amputees won’t just be able to operate prosthetics with just their thoughts; the technology will also provide sensory and kinesthetic feedback, making it feel like they’re moving their own limbs. In the case of scanning the internet with a brain, this involves not only uploading commands from the brain by converting analog brain circuits into digital circuits (output) but also the reverse (input); that is, downloading information from the internet to one’s brain middle.
Now, for most of us, the most basic form of privacy that exists is what happens in our heads. However, if Musk’s technology is used to establish a two-way “symbiosis” between the Internet and the human brain, then it stands to reason that such privacy will no longer exist. The companies that control Internet conduits have access to your most private thoughts; under current Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) laws, any government agency such as the National Security Agency (NSA) can access the content that flows out of those conduits.
In the logical sense of the latter, your brain, like your computer, can be vulnerable to viruses and malicious content. Imagine downloading false content into your brain—say, a radical conspiracy theory—and storing it in long-term memory, thus becoming part of your permanent working memory. Of course, when your computer is infected, you can refresh the hard drive or get a new computer; but your brain probably won’t be so easily restored (without losing your memory and personal identity) or replaced.
In the past, protecting your privacy on the Internet has been the responsibility of the federal government — specifically Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations and FISA laws. So a lot may depend on how aggressive the federal government is at protecting your privacy and that most fundamental area of freedom of thought and expression — your own ideas.
This solution could be part of the problem, as the trend towards powerful governments takes power around the world. Totalitarian governments don’t care about freedom of thought or speech, preferring to control these things. Thus, handing over control of these new technologies to a totalitarian government, or a government inclined in that direction, could be a recipe for a new world order that would make something like George Orwell’s vision in 1984 It looks stale and mild.
Will artificial intelligence really take over us like Musk believes? This is the stuff of sickly sci-fi movies made on this subject. Admittedly, over-reliance on AI will make us over-reliant on them. Now that you’re relying more and more on Global Positioning System (GPS) devices, how good is your sense of direction? Computers are now building themselves, so it’s not out of the question that we might eventually be replaced by computers.
But do we need to be one of them to stop them from overtaking us? Isn’t there a better way, such as laws requiring humans to plan and develop new technologies that serve humans rather than usurp them?
There is indeed a technical requirement that says, if you can create it, do it. Unfortunately, this absolute ban is blind to the social problems that may arise from the introduction of such new technologies.
Musk predicts that he will have chips in humans by 2022, but he doesn’t appear to be there yet. Plus, average consumers may resist having chips implanted in their brains, at least initially — despite his claims that the procedure is as safe as Lasik eye surgery. Still, many of us now walk with our Bluetooth devices strapped to our ears. Exactly how long it takes to get tired of wearing them on the outside of your brain isn’t clear, especially when it becomes “nerdy” to wear them like that.
So, is fusing the human brain with artificial intelligence really a good idea? This question is best answered now, not after this technology becomes the new reality.