if you can’t beat artificial intelligence, maybe you can join it
Elon Musk's startup is raising money to protect humanity from runaway adoption of artificial intelligence by merging our minds with machines. Here's how it could succeed.
Imagine that you just landed in a massive foreign metropolis. You don’t speak the language, you don’t know where to go to get to your hotel, and you’re not sure if you’re following the signs correctly. Suddenly, the image in your eyes adjusts and the signs appear in your first language. The translation is imperfect, but good enough for you to understand what it’s trying to say. As you clear customs, reach the baggage claim, and retrieve your things, you suddenly know how to ask for a taxi and how to tell the driver where you’re staying. You don’t need the annotated tourist map as you go exploring after checking in and freshening up in your room. It’s already in your head, downloaded while you were still at the airport. Welcome to the future of having a smartphone quite literally hooked up to your brain.
While this sounds like a scene from Ghost In The Shell, the technology to make all this a reality is actually a lot further along than you think, and Elon Musk’s company Neuralink is currently trying to raise $51 million to make it more practical for real world use. But how would this be possible? After all, linking your brain to a computer would require a surgeon to drill through your skull and attach wires to your brain. If you think a $1,000 smartphone that will let you do many of those things is expensive and excessive, just imagine a $250,000 brain surgery to do it all with a thought. Who would possibly agree to such an experiment instead of just pressing a few areas of a touch screen? Does anyone need to be able to interact with any sort of gadget or gizmo using only their brain?
so, how would we wire our brains?
Actually, yes. Patients who are paralyzed after a stroke or accident need exactly that: devices they could control with their minds. A brain implant could allow them to communicate with the outside world and help them regain some basic independence by manipulating robots with a thought until we can create a full body prosthesis for them. Since they would derive the most benefit from such devices, they’d be the likeliest first recipients, helping us test how to make this technology safe and effective. But what about the rest of us? Yes, we could benefit from manipulating our digital devices with our minds, but we don’t need the extensive surgery that would make it possible so very few doctors would be willing to perform it and risk potential damage to our brains should something go wrong during the operation.
This is where an experimental neural mesh technology currently being tested in animal models could be a major step forward. By injecting self-unfolding webs of electrodes into our heads and letting them unfold around the brain, we could interact with electronics around us using nothing more than a thought. Of course, this approach has its risks. Interacting with devices using our brains means those devices better be extremely secure and extensively encrypted. Failure to do so could leak important pieces of personal information hackers could use for identity theft and bank fraud or mess with our minds by scrambling what’s sent to our brains. That said, the dangers in question are very similar to what we already deal with now and can be mitigated using security practices already recommended by cybersecurity experts today.
the long-term benefits of being a cyborg
Hold you, you might ask, is it really worth it to embed electrodes in our brain so we can interact with our smartphones without actually touching them, or a little extra convenience when we’re traveling? Actually, yes. These conveniences are just a fringe benefit of something much more important. If we can interact with artificial intelligence algorithms on such a core level, we can take advantage of them to do our jobs better and faster. AI can run through a million variations of relevant numbers in the time it takes us to blink, so if we’re unsure of what to do next, we’d be able to direct the computers to which our minds are connected to crunch the data and give us some inspiration, opening us to more creative work requiring higher levels of abstraction.
In a way, it would mean that artificial intelligence would have a hard time replacing us if it exists as a part of us, like a virtual limb, and considering that Musk has a well-known and long-running fear of AI making humanity obsolete, that may very well be his goal. Rather than fall to sinister machines, we’d simply incorporate them into our creative process, offloading complex, tedious work poorly suited for our short-term memories but so ideal for computers it’s the reason we invented them in the first place, to AIs in the cloud. We won’t be able to beat automation. The machines we’re up against never sleep, never tire, and don’t need to be paid. But if can’t beat it, we can join it and use our most advanced tools to become part machine through advances that companies like Neuralink are trying to pioneer.