Not content with building space rockets, revolutionising electric vehicles, developing solar tiles and boring underground tunnels, Elon Musk recently launched a new venture: Neuralink. An understated website has surfaced, which describes the project as “developing ultra high bandwidth brain-machine interfaces to connect humans and computers”.
Musk wants to develop “neural lace”, an ultra-thin layer of electrodes that monitors brain function, which can be inserted above the brain’s cortex and act as an interface between the brain and a microchip.
Neural lace has already been tested on live mice in various laboratories with only a few reported drawbacks. As usual, however, Musk wants to push the boundaries of what is currently deemed possible.
Neuralink vs. Artificial Intelligence
Musk has long been sceptical of artificial intelligence (AI) and, as Ashlee Vance’s biography of the tech billionaire details, is genuinely afraid of a scenario in which computers usurp humans as rulers of the planet. He first publicly announced his worries around three years ago, and it seems that this latest venture is partly designed to ease his rather eccentric fears.
A particular conversation between Musk and Demis Hassabis, a leading proponent of AI and co-founder of London-based DeepMind, has become rather famous in tech circles. When the two met at SpaceX’s headquarters, Musk suggested that colonising Mars was crucial to the future of the human race because it would enable people to flee Earth in case AI took over the planet. Hassabis fired back saying that AI would, in such a scenario, simply follow humanity to the red planet.
Neuralink is, at least partly, an attempt by Musk to reduce the disparity between human and machine potential, by welding the two together. Should machines ever develop recursive self-improvement, Neuralink would enable humans to optimise their brains in order to compete with supercomputers.
This would have enormous ramifications on the global workforce. Already, driverless cars are reducing the need for taxi drivers, and FinTech is eating away at traditional finance jobs. The encroachment of technology upon the workplace is as intense as it is widespread. This is a trend that is set to continue.
Consequently, the amalgamation of a computer’s processing power and the human brain could redress the emerging and growing imbalance between the man and robot. In lines of work that cannot be performed by a machine, Neuralink’s product could, in fact, extend humanity’s lead over computers.
There are also profound medical applications for this technology. Among them is the possibility of eradicating degenerative mental diseases. Scientists have for a while hoped that neural lace, or something similar, would prove to be the panacea to Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Should Neuralink prove successful, they might well have the answer they have been searching for.
How Will Neuralink Pan Out?
At the moment, it is unclear what Neuralink’s final product will look like; how Musk’s aims will develop as production progresses; and what timescale the entire project is running on. If his other ventures are anything to go by, Neuralink will likely be funded out of Musk’s own pocket until it produces a high-level, expensive product that can generate the revenue and investment required to build a scalable one.
However, whereas Tesla produced the high-end Roadster, which was lapped up by wealthy businesspeople and celebrities, it is unlikely anyone will queueing up to have “neural lace” implanted into their brains. Not to mention, there will be unprecedented regulatory hurdles as Neuralink moves to the testing phase.
The impact that such a device will have on society is as uncertain as it is fascinating. Already, numerous journalists are expressing fears that Musk’s ambitions for “neural lace” are entering a realm of science that is best left alone.
Others argue that the product would exacerbate social inequality across the globe. Presumably, only the rich would afford such an item. This thinking seems incredibly disingenuous, however. At one time only wealthy people had cars. Similarly, a little over a decade ago, very few people had cameraphones; nowadays, “cameraphone” is a defunct term and most people in developed countries have a smartphone. Over time, where there is demand, costs inevitably come down.
Additionally, thinking that Musk would be satisfied with building something that did not have a utilitarian purpose is to fundamentally misunderstand him. Everything Musk has so far accomplished has the potential to radically improve the human experience. There is yet no reason to believe Neuralink will not continue in this vein.