Courtesy of Neuralink

Neuralink & Elon Musk Want To Control Your Brain

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Neuralink, a company cofounded in 2016 by Elon Musk and 7 scientists, has received permission from the US Food And Drug Administration to begin human trials of its technology. According to The Guardian, Musk envisions the company’s devices, which have been tested only on animals until now, being able to control a number of conditions — obesity, autism, depression, and schizophrenia — as well as making web browsing and telepathy possible simply by thinking about them. In Musk’s view, both disabled and healthy individuals would be able to obtain surgical implants at local centers quickly and easily.

Fiction has a way of becoming reality. Nautilus, the first American nuclear-powered submarine, was named after the vessel Captain Nemo commanded in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea. Elon Musk has gotten many of his ideas from science fiction and popular culture. Making the volume controls in some Tesla automobiles go to 11 is taken from the movie This Is Spinal Tap. The terms “Ludicrous” and “Plaid,” used for the fastest modes in Tesla’s fastest vehicles, are echoes from Space Balls, the Mel Brooks send-up of Star Wars.

Neuralink & Human Enhancement

In April 2017, Neuralink announced that it was aiming to make devices to treat serious brain diseases in the short term, with the eventual goal of human enhancement, sometimes called transhumanism. According to Wikipedia, Musk had said his interest in the idea stemmed partly from the science-fiction concept of “neural lace” in the fictional universe in The Culture, a series of 10 novels by Iain M. Banks. But it could also be that Michael Crichton’s 1972 novel The Terminal Man played a part.

Musk defined the neural lace as a “digital layer above the cortex” that would not necessarily imply extensive surgical insertion but ideally an implant through a vein or artery. He says the long-term goal is to achieve “symbiosis with artificial intelligence,” which he perceives as an existential threat to humanity if it goes unchecked.

According to Wikipedia, Musk believes the device will be “something analogous to a video game, like a saved game situation, where you are able to resume and upload your last state” and “address brain injuries or spinal injuries and make up for whatever lost capacity somebody has with a chip.” People who are familiar with Musk’s career will know that he has often suggested that all humans may just be part of a computer simulation.

Musk’s Silicon Valley mentality, which embraces moving fast and breaking things, did not sit well with some of the scientists who founded Neuralink. Wikipedia says that by August 2020, only three of the eight founders remained with the company. Stat News reported that Neuralink had seen “years of internal conflict in which rushed timelines have clashed with the slow and incremental pace of science.”

In January of 2022, Fortune ran a story that claimed former employees of Neuralink criticized its “culture of blame and fear” and vacillating priorities. They said Musk undermined management by encouraging junior employees “to email issues and complaints to him directly.” When you work with Musk, there is no confusion about who ultimately runs the show.

Ultra-Thin Probes Inserted Into The Brain

Neuralink
Courtesy of Neuralink

The Neuralink technology is a closely guarded secret, but Wikipedia has some specifics. It says the system involves ultra-thin probes that will be inserted into the brain, a neurosurgical robot that will perform the operations, and a high-density electronic system capable of processing information from neurons. It is based on technology developed at UCSF and UC Berkeley.

The probes are composed mostly of polyimide, a biocompatible material, with a thin gold or platinum conductor. They are inserted into the brain through an automated process performed by a surgical robot. Each probe consists of an area of wires that contains electrodes capable of locating electrical signals in the brain and a sensory area where the wires interact with an electronic system that allows amplification and acquisition of the brain signal. Each probe contains 48 or 96 wires, each of which contains 32 independent electrodes, for a total of up to 3072 electrodes per formation.

Neuralink says it has engineered a surgical robot capable of rapidly inserting many flexible probes into the brain, which may avoid the problems of tissue damage and longevity issues associated with larger and more rigid probes. This surgical robot has an insertion head with a 40 μm diameter needle made of tungsten-rhenium designed to attach to the insertion loops, inject individual probes, and penetrate the meninges and cerebral tissue. It is capable of inserting up to six wires (192 electrodes) per minute.

Neuralink & Animal Testing

It’s not all sunshine and roses at Neuralink, however. The Guardian reports that on 2022, the USDA Inspector General began investigating, at the request of a federal prosecutor, potential violations of the Animal Welfare Act, which governs how researchers treat and test certain types of animals. The company has killed about 1,500 animals — including more than 280 sheep, pigs, and monkeys — following experiments since 2018, Reuters has reported.

The FDA approval comes as US lawmakers are urging regulators to investigate whether the make-up of a panel overseeing animal testing at Neuralink contributed to botched and rushed experiments. Neuralink has already been the subject of federal investigations.

After the FDA announcement, Neuralink said it is not yet open for a clinical trial. “This is the result of incredible work by the Neuralink team in close collaboration with the FDA and represents an important first step that will one day allow our technology to help many people,” the company said in a tweet.

Over the years, Musk has publicly outlined an ambitious plan for Neuralink. He made headlines late last year when he said he was already so confident in the device’s safety that he would be willing to implant it in his own children. That’s fine, but the real question is whether he would be willing to have the implants placed in his own brain.

AI As Uber Nanny

Addressing CEOs at a Wall Street Journal conference this week, Musk sounded the alarm about artificial intelligence (AI) while simultaneously embracing it as a new business opportunity for Twitter. Business Insider reports Musk said of AI, “It’s a small likelihood of annihilating humanity, but it’s not zero.” He also said there is a chance AI would assume control for “the safety of all the humans” and effectively become some sort of an “über-nanny.”

“There is a risk that advanced AI either eliminates or constrains humanity’s growth. It’s a double-edged sword. If you have a genie that can grant you anything, that presents a danger,” he said.

Musk suggested there should be a competitor to Microsoft’s partnership with OpenAI and Google’s relationship with DeepMind. “I think there should be a significant third horse in the race here. OpenAI has a relationship with Microsoft that seems to work fairly well, so it’s possible that X.AI and Twitter, Tesla would have something similar.”

The Takeaway

The implications of this technology are staggering. Just this week, doctors in Switzerland have created a “digital bridge” between the brain and the spinal cord of a man who has been paralyzed for a decade after a motorcycle accident. The man is now able to walk normally. No one disputes that helping someone walk again is a laudable accomplishment. But for animal rights advocates, the testing carried out by Neuralink raises troubling moral questions. So does the idea of creating “transhumans” who may have no infirmities that need correcting but just want to have greater mental capabilities. Who gets those enhancements? Who pays for them? And are we creating a new master race that will rule “ordinary” humans? Will those new masters be benevolent or will they plant the idea in our brains that we should get out of our comfortable beds and volunteer to be “hardcore” so we can work until 3:00 am six days a week?

Will the Neuralink neural lace faithfully report our every waking thought to a central database where all our ideas and preferences can be decoded and shared with advertisers? Questions directed to Elon Musk often result in an emoji of a smiling pile of excrement. Is this really the man you want poking around inside your head?

Those questions bring to mind another work of science fiction that may be pertinent here.


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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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