Screen addiction is nothing new, it’s today’s problem of the masses—in humans, at least. Now, our fellow primate the gorilla has been inflicted with our issues too. Amare, a 415 pound, 16-year-old gorilla at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo has become totally obsessed with his smartphone. Help.
Amare lives with three other male gorillas, and the four of them encounter hundreds of human visitors who shove their smartphones up to their glass enclosure, showing them pictures and videos. Amare in particular has become hooked, to the point where zookeepers have had to put up a rope to keep visitors away from the glass. He became so entranced by the objects that he failed to notice when one of his gorilla housemates ran up and attacked him. Do you feel sad yet? Because I do.
During development, male gorillas will often get aggressive with each other as a form of play fighting to establish dominance and hierarchy, Amare being distracted by what shouldn’t concern his daily life is leading him to “severe developmental consequences,” as Stephen Ross, director of the zoo’s Centre for the Study and Conservation of Apes, told the Chicago-Sun Times.
Ross continued to say that it’s “probably a cyclical phenomenon, the more he shows interest the more people want to engage in it. […] It’s something we’ve noticed and have talked about a lot in terms of a strategy to address it.” This truly is an issue, especially in Amare’s case as the four male gorilla enclosure is completely separate from another enclosure that contains a family group, including the dominant male. How could this affect the future of Amare when it comes—which we all hope it does—to interacting with a normal and mixed group of gorillas?
Compared to the gorilla’s housemates’ seeming lack of interest in screens, Amare isn’t completely to blame for the outcome, as he has become more vulnerable to the exposure of these screens due to his favourite spot in the enclosure being right next to the glass. The zoo has since asked visitors to respect the barriers that are now in place and hope that this will encourage Amare to spend more time with his fellow apes.
What’s interesting is that since the ropes have been put in place, Amare has already slightly withdrawn from his corner of the enclosure and into the rest of the space, whereas humans who are stripped of their screens, especially teenagers like Amare, can experience withdrawal symptoms like anxiety or depression. But Amare reacted positively straight away.
We’re seeing more and more interaction between apes and technology, especially when it comes to testing out new ways to communicate with them. Humans have craved the idea of being able to speak to animals well before Doctor Dolittle was a thing. Morally, how far can this go? We have no reverse gear, and what is to consider is how much we disrupt the evolution of an ecosystem without destroying the very essence of it. Without the animals to care for their natural landscapes, like rainforests, jungles and savannas, in ways that we can not, will the landscapes exist at all?
What is truly ironic in this is the connection between mobile phones and gorillas. Amare is one of the Eastern Lowland gorillas, where the mining of minerals such as coltan—a metallic ore used in mobile phones and other electronic devices—is taken from. The demand for mobile phones continuously increases, and then so too does the mining of gorilla habitats.
Forget Space X or Hyperloop, Elon Musk’s ambitious neurotechnology project has just made a breakthrough akin to your wildest sci-fi fantasy: a monkey is now able to play Pong solely with its mind. The demonstration by the company Neuralink is a prime example of a brain-machine interface in action. With human trials set to start later this year, what does this mean for humanity as we know it?
Last year, the company successfully implanted a chip into a pig’s brain to measure visual information and sensory data from its snout. Last month, the company successfully implanted a chip into a monkey’s brain so it could play Pong—the two-dimensional sports game that simulates table tennis—using only its mind. It’s safe to say Neuralink is making (brain) waves within the emerging neurotechnology industry.
It all started with a coin-sized disc, called a ‘link’, which is implanted by a precision surgical robot into the monkey’s brain, connecting thousands of micro threads from the chip to neurons responsible for controlling motion. The nine-year-old monkey called Pager—presumably unaware that it’s the centrepiece of a scientific breakthrough and internet fame—had two Neurolink devices put on each side of his brain six weeks before. Pager was then taught to use a joystick to move a cursor to targets on a screen in exchange for a banana smoothie. What could possibly go wrong, right?
The ‘link’ device then records the monkey’s neuron activity while he interacts with the joystick and cursor. The narrator of the video explains this is only possible due to thousands of tiny wires implanted into Pager’s motor cortex—the part of the brain that coordinates hand and arm movements. The data is then fed into a decoder algorithm, predicting Pager’s intended hand movements in real-time.
Neuralink claims that once the decoder is calibrated, the monkey is free to control the cursor without relying on the joystick—essentially controlling the cursor with only its mind. The joystick is then deactivated as the video shows the monkey playing Pong with, and only with, its mind. It’s proof of the astonishing scientific advances we humans can achieve—Pager is able to play Pong telepathically with more accuracy than I ever could on my 2008 flip phone.
To put it bluntly, it’s too early to tell. However, there is reason to believe we’re witnessing the emergence of a new technology that could have a serious impact on society. Bearing in mind that this is mostly hypothetical, aside from Pager’s ability to play a video game telepathically, which is now objective science—let’s start with the positives.
Neuralink claims that the technology could assist people who are paralysed from brain or spinal injuries, giving them the ability to control computerised devices with their minds—similar to how Pager was able to control a cursor with just his brain. If all goes to plan, it would be an invaluable way for paraplegics, quadriplegics or victims of strokes to live a free and autonomous life. The ‘link’ chip might also be able to connect with other technology, for instance, making prosthetic limbs feel ‘real’.
This experiment’s success also touches upon how the technology could, theoretically, be a valuable treatment for psychological and neurological conditions like depression or addiction—even claiming to restore senses for those who are blind or deaf. This is all very up there but there’s reason to be cautiously optimistic of how developments in neurotechnology could drastically change medicine as we know it, and for the good.
It’s worth noting the positives go beyond therapeutic value too. The technology could offer a faster way of interacting with computers—we wouldn’t be limited to the QWERTY keyboard anymore, instead, we’d be able to send messages at the speed of thought. Granted, this would make being ghosted by your Tinder match that extra bit painful.
Scientists have also theorised that the technology could connect brains to the cloud. This would essentially change human intelligence as we know it—an individual’s ‘native’ intelligence could be augmented by accessing cloud-based artificial intelligence. It sounds whacky now but imagine explaining Google to someone in the early 90s.
Alright, I’m going to burst the positive bubble here: criminals have, and most likely always will adapt to new technology in order to exploit the vulnerable. It’s happened with credit cards, with the internet, and it even happened with COVID-19—there’s no reason to believe that once this technology is mainstream, it’ll be invincible to those with bad intentions.
Scientists warn that without “bulletproof security”, hackers could access implanted chips, causing malfunctions or misdirections of their actions. Similar to that Wallace and Gromit episode where an evil penguin hacked the robotic trousers to steal from a bank, staging Wallace in the process—only with much darker consequences. A device vulnerable to such actions could be fatal for the disabled individuals the technology serves to benefit.
It’s an ethical and philosophical issue that still plagues the neurotechnology field to this day. And if that wasn’t complicated enough, some have raised concerns that developments in AI working through a brain-machine interface could take control of the host’s brain through nanotechnology. The very man himself, Elon Musk, has previously warned that AI poses an existential threat to humanity—claiming AI is set to overtake humans in less than five years.
It’s a tricky ethical minefield to manoeuvre. And if animal testing wasn’t unethical enough, human trials are set to start at the beginning of this year. Scientists have warned that we must devote enough time and effort to building safeguards. However, if implemented safely, the technology could bring enormous positives to society.
As for me: I’m a writer, not a scientist, there’s little value I can add to the discussion other than what I’ve already said. I guess it’s a waiting game—if in twenty years I can order a pizza just by thinking (and my brain isn’t hacked by cybercriminals), I’ll be happy knowing science has done its job.