At the end of August of last year, Elon Musk publicly unveiled the Link VO.9 chips developed by Neuralink, the neurotechnology firm he has led since 2016.
Even though the project was pretty mysterious until 2019, it always had the objective of manufacturing BMI (brain-machine interface) devices to connect human brains with computers and to establish direct communication between the two, thereby permitting people with myelopathies (spinal cord injuries which cause motor problems or various levels of paralysis) or similar conditions to be able to use certain devices with just their minds.
“As users think about moving their arms or hands, we would decode those intentions [via the Link device], which would be sent over Bluetooth to the user’s computer,” explains the Neuralink official site. They anticipate that paralyzed users would be able to control virtual cursors, at least as a start. The evolution of the algorithm, which essentially decodes brain activity, could enable the control of other devices in the future.
In the first presentation of Link VO.9, Elon Musk demonstrated the breakthrough device monitoring the brain activity of a pig in real time, in which the chip (which is the size of a coin) had been implanted by way of a brief robotic surgery with local anesthesia. He also presented the robot that performed the above procedure (it being necessary because of the level of precision the procedure requires, to avoid damaging blood vessels), as well as another pig that was healthy, which had had the Link device but which had it removed, to prove the harmless reversibility of the implant.
Neuroscientists might not be totally surprised, as this is not the first time that one could “read” electrical brain impulses of an animal (or human), or that neurons of a specific region of the brain were stimulated, as Musk also demonstrated. But this is the first time that a device with 1024 electrodes connected to flexible threads, finer than a human hair (they can only be seen with a microscope), registered neuronal activity and transmitted their signals wirelessly, as well as also predicting movement and measuring intracranial temperature and pressure in real time (these last measurements in theory being able to alert for heart attacks or strokes before they actually occur, Musk promises).
What else? What is certain is that the leader of SpaceX is ambitious, and that he sets his expectations in such a way that predicting what a quadrapledic wants to do with their extremities could be a starting point, through another implant, to creating a “bridge” in the nervous system that, eventually, returns mobility to the patient.
But he has also talked about telepathy, of “superpowers” like infrared or ultraviolet vision, and other very Black Mirror-esque applications (a dystopic sci-fi series that Musk himself has cited), like the storing, reproduction, and restoring of memories, even to the point of the possibility of downloading them to another body, even perhaps a robotic one.
Even with the principal focus of Neuralink being rightly centered on medicine, particularly in neurodegenerative diseases, sensorial and motor disabilities, and also chronic pain or mental disorders or issues such as addiction or depression (which some consider being able to be improved by “correcting” the electrical signals of the neurons), Elon Musk does not hide the possible application of his chips for the general population. Firstly, he reckons that the majority of people will experience at some point in their lives, especially in old age, some medical problem that Neuralink could aid in ending (much of these, after all, have to do with the deterioration of the body related to aging).
Secondly, because Musk firmly believes that in order to ‘survive’ artificial intelligence, humanity needs to obtain a high level of symbiosis with it. In other words, that we need to ‘incorporate it’ into ourselves before it overtakes us and threatens our existence. Neuralink is, for him, the best way of keeping it under control.
While some think that artificial intelligence could simply align itself with human values to ‘always be at our side’, or that it will never exceed biological intelligence, for Elon Musk, the latter contemplates a catastrophic possibility that can only be prevented by combining to two human and artificial intelligences by way of BMI devices implanted in our brains, in a way that each one could learn from the other.
So, imagine a future generation of humans with superintelligence, supercreativity, supermemory, unlimited superaccess to information, which could solve the problem of the monopolization of it, or the censorship of it (for example, at the government level). After all, we would be able to obtain answers through thought (not with external devices) on a global Internet operating in our brains. That is to say, the chip bringing artificial intelligence would become like an extension of ourselves, a “third cognitive layer”, after the cerebral cortex (in charge of perception, thought, imagination, judgement, and planning) and the limbic system (which regulates physiological responses, emotions, and instincts).
Even though symbiosis is defined as a positive relationship of mutual benefit, the path that leads towards transhumanism could involve various dangers. From the unpredictability of machine learning algorithms, to the two intelligences becoming in conflict with one another, or the security of the neural data gathered by the chips (basically, how do we avoid the hacking of the brain?
After all, we are indeed talking about the organ that houses our personality, our feelings or particular emotions, our memories or our most private thoughts, our reasoning… In short, everything that makes us human.