You may have caught wind of the latest attempt by Elon Musk to improve upon our human lot, this time by wiring our brains into computers through implanted chips connected to ultrathin threads lacing our brain (hence, the name “neuralace”). If you can’t decipher his white paper, then catch his popular presentation on YouTube. The tripartite goal of this venture is, we are told, to “understand and treat brain disorders,” to “preserve and enhance your own brain,” and, most suspect of all, to “create a well-aligned future.”
The new Muskian company that promises to deliver all three is Neuralink. What’s being linked to our “neura” are computers that artificially enhance our natural intelligence. Even the internet itself will be linked. (If the ill effects of the internet are wired directly into our brains, however, they should more than cancel out any good effects of the intellectual enhancement.)
As Musk assures us in his popular presentation, we needn’t worry if this sounds creepy. We won’t be rushed into anything by this new technology. “It’ll occur quite slowly. It’s not as if Neuralink will suddenly have this incredible neuralace and start taking over people’s brains.” After which promise, Musk laughs nervously. “This is not a mandatory thing,” he adds, with an assuring smile. “This is a thing you can choose to have if you want it.”
Before we judge the character of Musk’s smile, we’d better get a clearer idea of what he has in his mind for our minds. We may then assess it with the wisdom of C. S. Lewis, as well as the prophetic, dystopian literary presentation of Musk’s project by Catholic novelist, Dean Koontz.
Our complex brains have well over 80 billion neurons that transmit electrical impulses which allow for every aspect of our thinking, feeling, and acting, and each of these aspects has its own location in the brain. For example, higher-order thinking occurs in the frontal lobes, whereas the occipital lobes in the back of the brain are connected to vision.
Now imagine that you have a machine—which we do—that can detect the “spikes” in neuronal activity, that is, when electrical impulses occur in a particular area of the brain. For example, you decide to move your computer mouse with your hand slightly to the right so that the cursor will move that way on the computer screen. This generates a pattern of spikes in relation to a particular set of neurons’ electrical impulses. The end result is that you move your hand—and hence the mouse and then the cursor—slightly to the right.
Next imagine that you have been paralyzed in an accident. When you decide to move your computer mouse the electrical impulses occur but your hand cannot move. What Neuralink promises to do is translate those tell-tale electrical impulses in your brain directly into the movement of the cursor on the computer. The chips and wires will be linked to a blue-tooth type device worn behind the ear, which in turn is controlled by an app on an iPhone.
Such is the laudable, primary goal of Musk’s venture: to help those with brain injuries, abnormalities, and degenerative conditions. Two great technological breakthroughs in this effort are the amazing miniaturization of the implanted computer chips and the minimization of the ill effects of implantation via a precision robotic inserting device that looks like a slightly menacing sewing machine. It will make implantation as easy and quick as LASIK surgery, with no need for a neurosurgeon.
What could possibly go wrong?
The problem is that the primary goal is not the only goal. Musk wants to use this powerful technology to enhance our brains and create a well-aligned future.
But as C. S. Lewis so trenchantly stated in his Abolition of Man, “Each new power won by man is a power over man as well,” and this is especially true with technological power. “Man’s conquest of Nature, if the dreams of some scientific planners are realized, means the rule of a few hundreds of men over billions upon billions of men.” In short, how Musk defines “enhance” and “well-aligned future” makes all the difference because it will define how Neuralink is used when we cross the fuzzy line between strictly physically therapeutic medical uses and utopian goals.
Musk’s real enthusiasm, as he makes clear in his talks, is for the utopian goals. He wants to create superhuman intelligence, i.e., natural brains transformed by the artificial power of computers. In his words, “The overarching objective is to make the future better, aspirationally [sic], and to hopefully not pave the road to hell with good intentions—I think the road to hell is mostly paved with bad intentions.”
Before we settle that debate, let’s look more carefully at the devil in the details of Musk’s Neuralink vision. The interesting thing about the design aim is that the device works both ways: out and in. You can “read” the electrical signals in the brain of a person and translate that outward into the motion of a cursor on a computer screen or of an artificial limb (i.e., “get information out of the brain”), or someone on the outside can cause electrical signals in the person’s brain (i.e., “put information into the brain”). Out or in, the signals are related to “thinking, movement, vision, speech, mood, pain, hunger, thirst, mathematical reasoning,” and a host of other aspects of our humanity. Those who have the power to read the “output” also have the power to manipulate the “input.”
Can we trust Musk and Neuralink not to violate our humanity when such a God-like power is made available?
I think not. First, Musk himself is a deep reductionist. As he states quite frankly, “Everything that you perceive, feel, hear, think—it’s all action potentials. It’s all just neural spikes and it feels so real. It feels very real, but it’s all just impulses from neurons—what’s called a ‘spike’.” If that’s all it is, then what moral limits control how it’s manipulated?
Second, Neuralink is a business. The whole point of making implantation in the brain as quick and easy as getting LASIK, is to make it possible for a wider number of companies to be able to use it. If you think that will have a benign result, then ask yourself what Google or Facebook might do with the technology, especially if it’s hooked up to the internet. They already manipulate data in order to control opinions and drive advertising revenue; just wait until they’re inside our heads.
Third, one doesn’t have to be a Luddite to have enough experience with human nature to realize that an increase in technological power magnifies both existing short-sightedness and moral evil. Therefore, one doesn’t have to be much of a prophet to predict that the optimistic, rosy picture of all the utopian long-term benefits will rather quickly and deeply be tainted by the same old human failures and sins. Facial recognition technology developed in the West forms the foundation of China’s totalitarian police state.
If all that doesn’t sway you in regard to the real dangers of Musk’s technological vision, then please read Dean Koontz’s five-part Jane Hawk series. Koontz is one of the most morally acute writers we have today, and he chillingly describes what would really happen if Elon Musk’s technology becomes widespread: we would have a toxic, totalitarian union of government and industry controlling the brains of its citizens “for their own good”—which, to again quote Lewis, “means the rule of a few hundreds of men over billions upon billions of men.”