Tech bro entrepreneur Elon Musk recently shook up the Twittersphere after Saturday Night Live announced in April 2021 that Musk would host the 8 May show. It’s safe to say that reception was mixed as cast members Aidy Bryant and Bowen Yang shared Instagram Stories suggesting they were less than pleased with the news. What few seemed to pick up on, however, is that this little number wasn’t Musk’s first crack at comedy. Remember the massive failure that was his satire project, ‘Thud’?
On 14 March, 2018, Musk tweeted: “Thud!” Hours later, he followed up with: “That’s the name of my new intergalactic media empire, exclamation point optional.” Understandably, it was unclear at first whether he was serious, but that was shortly clarified with an exclusive by The Daily Beast. In the piece, it was uncovered that former editors of The Onion, Ben Berkley and Cole Bolton, had been working on a secret Los Angeles-based project funded by one of the richest men in the world.
At the time, Musk told The Daily Beast, “It’s pretty obvious that comedy is the next frontier after electric vehicles, space exploration, and brain-computer interfaces. Don’t know how anyone’s not seeing this.” Duh.
In case you weren’t aware, Musk had been a fan of The Onion for a while already—going as far as to dub it “the greatest publication in the history of all conscious beings, living or dead.” And according to The Daily Beast, he had even once expressed interest in acquiring the satirical digital media company. Only, that never came to be, so instead, Musk decided to launch his own satirical baby: Thud.
Co-founded with Berkley and Bolton, who had reportedly left The Onion in 2017 due to creative differences with its new owners, Univision, Thud was initially launched with a $2 million budget. Berkley assembled a writing staff, nine of the 13 which were The Onion alumni. But Musk didn’t only want to create a copy of the already successful The Onion—ultimately, Thud created several satirical projects, most of which remain online today.
Among Thud’s ‘interesting’ projects, a handful of them stood out. First, there was DNA Friend, a website that traces your ancestry by taking webcam photos of your mouth. Then came Mampfen, a satirical guide to “the finest locations in Los Angeles to slurp, chomp, and guzzle.” TacStorm was a website built to promote a fake product that came in the form of a “continuously firing gun” while Ploog was… well, let’s just say it was something else.
Believe it or not, but Musk was so worried that his own project would be turned against him (meaning it would somehow be used as a way to make fun of him too, which, ironically he did himself in his latest SNL appearance) that he decided to sell the whole enterprise to Bolton and Berkley. As Bolton explained to The Verge, when Thud closed down in 2019, “Making a swift transition from being a billionaire-backed project to an independent media company is… You know.”
Putting this slight problem aside, Thud’s failure was mainly attributed to its lack of success among mainstream audiences. “The projects Thud created just weren’t funny enough to develop an audience as devoted as The Onion’s,” wrote Mic. Although websites like DNA Friend and TacStorm had potential by highlighting the disturbing world we live in, pushing its readers to consider things from a different perspective—it ultimately left a bad taste in the mouth, one that most people tend to stay away from in a society filled with constant microaggressions.
Satire aims to expose and criticise people’s stupidity or vices, and in a way, Thud managed to do just that. But is satire truly the recipe for success? Musk’s short-lived concept seems to be the honest answer to this question.
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.