Elon Musk’s pushing forward his ambitious Neuralink human-AI merge. But who pays the price?

By Fatou Ferraro Mboup

Published Oct 21, 2023 at 08:30 AM

Reading time: 2 minutes

In the circus of Elon Musk’s wild escapades, from Tesla’s zany electric cars and SpaceX’s grandiose promises to take humanity to the stars to his Twitter chaos, and dreams of turning Mars into a vacation destination, there’s one act that gives next-level hot mess energy: Neuralink.

At first look, Neuralink appears to be a noble quest to help those battling paralysis. Launched in 2016, the company unveiled a scheme in 2019 involving flexible threads designed for brain implants and a sewing-machine-esque robot to perform brain surgery.

The notion is that these threads would decipher signals from a paralysed person’s brain and transmit them to a smartphone or computer, giving the patient the power to control devices with their thoughts. Imagine there is no need for tapping, typing, or swiping, your thoughts do all the work.

Up until recently, Neuralink’s experiments were strictly limited to rats and monkeys. Then came the big news in May that the company had managed to score FDA approval for human trials. Now, it’s actively recruiting volunteers who’ve drawn the short straw in life, enduring the challenges of paralysis, to test if the implant lets them perform processes on external devices.

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But here’s the kicker, or rather, the plot twist: Musk’s ambition stretches far beyond just helping paralysed individuals regain their groove. In reality, Neuralink is a mere stepping stone on Musk’s quest to create a real-life human-AI hybrid, thereby avoiding a future where AI renders us as irrelevant as payphones in the smartphone era. So, Musk basically wants you to become one with the machine, instead of letting the machines advance and take over.

You see, Musk is among a crowd of tech titans who’ve been losing sleep over the fear that AI could go rogue and completely surpass human intelligence. In March of this year, Musk and pals—including the ones behind OpenAI’s GPT-4, an AI writing wizard—sent a letter to the world warning that creating AI systems smarter than humans was like handing over control of your house to a mischievous poltergeist.

Where Musk breaks from the pack is his unique solution to this AI conundrum: if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. The mogul envisions a world where AI systems capable of transmitting information at a mind-blowing trillion bits per second look down at us sluggish humans, who can only muster a measly 39 bits per second. To AI, we’d be nothing but lovable throwbacks, like VHS tapes in a world of streaming services. But what if we could become just like them?

“It’s mostly about the bandwidth, the speed of the connection between your brain and the digital version of yourself,” Musk declared back in 2017.

The power behind Neuralink

The Neuralink brain implant is like a Swiss Army knife for neurons, loaded with 1,024 electrodes capable of eavesdropping on the brain’s internal conversations. More electrodes mean more mind-reading power. But there’s a catch—it requires drilling a hole in the skull and plunging into the grey matter. Not your average DIY project, to say the least.

Here’s where it gets even more bizarre. While Musk’s Neuralink is all about invasive surgery, others in the brain-computer interface (BCI) business are taking a less invasive approach. Companies like Synchron and Blackrock Neurotech are cooking up BCIs that can translate your thoughts into eloquent speeches or even move objects with just a thought.

Take Synchron, for example, its BCI involves sending a stent into a blood vessel near your brain’s motor cortex. Once there, it blooms like a flower, with sensors on the stent picking up your brain’s inner gossip. No skull-cracking required, no risky brain breach.

How far does Elon Musk want to go with Neuralink?

So, here’s where the fun starts. In a world teetering on the brink of AI domination, Musk insists on the most intrusive option out there. Why? The answer is, once again, all about bandwidth. Musk is determined to maximise the brain-to-computer connection speed as if he believes we need the Ferrari of brain implants to merge with AI, upload our minds to the cloud, and live on in the digital realm. Your everyday BCIs just won’t cut it.

Yet, while Musk races toward this brain-machine fusion, there’s a looming question: Should we be striving for bandwidth supremacy at the expense of less invasive and safer methods?

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