Elon Musk has already made headlines for his sci-fi ambitions to blast passengers from city to city at supersonic speeds and build a viable colony on Mars, but this might be his most unreal endeavor yet.
Neuralink’s ultimate mission is to level up the human brain with “ultrahigh-bandwidth brain-computer interfaces.” The startup began as a medical research company that has downloaded $27 million since its inception in 2016. Musk remains cryptic about the project with the exception of rare public comments about the advantages of augmenting human intelligence with technology. What we do know is that his fear of AI as a threat to humanity is what inspires him to seek innovative ways of keeping up with the droids.
I’ll admit this is already starting to sound like the infamous episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where Captain Picard becomes half Borg.
Musk believes the almost unthinkable potential of the brain is suppressed by our need to compress our thoughts into speech or text (oh, the horror) that can’t possibly capture its complexity. Human DNA simply wasn’t designed to expand your mind.
“That’s what language is — your brain has executed a compression algorithm on thought, on concept transfer,” Musk said in an interview published on the blog Wait But Why. “If you have two brain interfaces, you could actually do an uncompressed direct conceptual communication with another person.”
As a writer, I have issues with brain-generated language being thought of as inferior, but I digress.
Musk’s idea of a brain-computer interface, what he calls a neural lace, should be able to directly link you to someone else’s thoughts, and as the tech gets more advanced (and creepier), an entire human internet of thoughts. He thinks of plugging in thought processes as a catalyst for innovation—as in, we could dream up cures and inventions and all sorts of futuristic entertainment and communications with digitally enhanced neurons.
Making a thought network the norm is an even more unnerving prospect. Brain chips are viewed as the epilepsy and Alzheimer’s antidotes of the future, but the high-risk surgery to implant them into healthy people for superhuman intelligence has ethical implications beyond imagining.
Neuralink is currently focusing on using interfaces for medical applications, which along with epilepsy and Alzheimer's can mean a resurgence of functionality for those who are deaf, have suffered a stroke, or have brain and spinal cord injuries.
Such technology was around before Tesla and SpaceX were even born. Restoring hearing for the profoundly deaf involves a cochlear implant that is pretty much a computer interface, which amps audio and transmits that information to the brain. Victims of stroke and paralysis have been able to gain back some semblance of normality from head-mounted EEG readers that are connected to robotic arms and avatars that they use only their thoughts to control.
Medical advances such as these are nothing short of breathtaking. They put me more at ease about the Alzheimer’s in my gene pool. While Musk may be (ironically) creeped out by AI, superhuman brain augmentation could open a Pandora’s box of epic proportions.
Earth to Musk: We don’t want to go there.