Fourth Industrial Revolution

Elon Musk's new venture seeks to allow us to add extra memory to the brain

An attendee takes part in a neuro-feedback session during the opening day of the second annual Bulletproof Biohacking Conference at the Pasadena Convention Center in California September 26, 2014. The conference features groundbreaking work in the optimization of human, mental and physical performance. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni  (UNITED STATES - Tags: SOCIETY SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY) - RTR47VXN

Such devices don’t extend our abilities beyond those of a normal healthy person. Image: REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Peter Singer
Professor, Princeton University
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Have you ever wished you could add extra memory to your brain? Elon Musk may be able to help you with that.

Musk heads the company best known for making Tesla, the industry-leading electric car. He is also the CEO of SpaceX, which is building rockets so that humans can live on Mars. Now Musk has revealed that he is the founder and chief executive of Neuralink, a startup seeking to create cerebral implants that will turn computers into a direct extension of our brains and thus enhance our intelligence and memory.

Musk’s various projects have a single overarching aim: to safeguard the future of our species. Electric cars improve our chances of preventing dangerous levels of global warming. A permanent settlement on Mars would reduce the risk of climate change – or a nuclear war, bioterrorism, or asteroid collision – wiping out our species.

Neuralink serves this goal, too, because Musk is among those who believe that to build a machine smarter than yourself is, as Nick Bostrom, the author of Superintelligence, puts it, “a basic Darwinian error.” Yet, given rapid progress on artificial intelligence, and the multiple incentives for making computers even smarter, Musk sees no way of preventing that from happening. His favored strategy to save us from being eliminated by super-intelligent machines is therefore to hook us into computers, so that we become as clever as state-of-the-art artificial intelligence, however intelligent that may be.

There is nothing new about people having electronic devices implanted in their bodies. The artificial cardiac pacemaker has been in use for nearly 60 years. Since 1998, scientists have been implanting devices in the brains of people who are paralyzed, enabling them to move a cursor on a screen with their thoughts, or in more advanced versions, to move an artificial hand that can grasp things.

Image: The Conversation

Such devices don’t extend our abilities beyond those of a normal healthy person. The artist Neil Harbisson, however, has an antenna implanted in his skull that enables him to hear frequencies corresponding not only to colors we can see – Harbisson has an extreme form of colorblindness – but also to infrared and ultraviolet light, which are invisible to us. Harbisson claims that he is a cyborg, that is, an organism with technologically enhanced capacities.

To move from these useful but limited devices to the kind of brain-machine interactions that Musk is seeking would require major scientific breakthroughs. Most of the research on brain implants uses nonhuman animals, and the decades of harm inflicted on monkeys and other animals make it ethically dubious.

In any case, for Musk’s plan to succeed, experimenting on humans as well as animals will be unavoidable. Incurably disabled or terminally ill patients may volunteer to participate in medical research that offers them hope where otherwise there would be none. Neuralink will begin with research designed to assist such patients, but to achieve its grand aim, it will need to move beyond them.

In the United States, Europe, and most other countries with advanced biomedical research, strict regulations on the use of human subjects would make it extremely difficult to get permission to carry out experiments aimed at enhancing our cognitive abilities by linking our brains to computers. US regulations drove Phil Kennedy, a pioneer in the use of computers to enable paralyzed patients to communicate by thought alone, to have electrodes implanted in his own brain in order to make further scientific progress. Even then, he had to go to Belize, in Central America, to find a surgeon willing to perform the operation. In the United Kingdom, cyborg advocate Kevin Warwick and his wife had data arrays implanted in their arms to show that direct communication between the nervous systems of separate human beings is possible.

Musk has suggested that the regulations governing the use of human subjects in research could change. That may take some time. Meanwhile freewheeling enthusiasts are going ahead anyway. Tim Cannon doesn’t have the scientific or medical qualifications of Phil Kennedy or Kevin Warwick, but that hasn’t stopped him from co-founding a Pittsburgh company that implants bionic devices, often after he has first tried them out on himself. His attitude is, as he said at an event billed as “The world’s first cyborg-fair,” held in Düsseldorf in 2015, “Let’s just do it and really go for it.”

People at the Düsseldorf cyborg-fair had magnets, radio frequency identification chips, and other devices implanted in their fingers or arms. The surgery is often carried out by tattooists and sometimes veterinarians, because qualified physicians and surgeons are reluctant to operate on healthy people.

Are the doctors right? Should healthy people be discouraged, if not prevented, from implanting devices in themselves?

Warwick says that scientific research has benefited from what the cyborg enthusiasts have done. “It’s their call,” he says, and that seems right – so long as people are properly informed of the risks and freely consent to take them. If we do not prevent people from smoking, or from climbing K2 in winter, it isn’t easy to see why we should be more paternalistic when people volunteer to contribute to advances in science. Doing so may add meaning to their lives, and if Musk is right, it could ultimately save us all.

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