Most of us are familiar with Elon Musk’s adventures at the helm of Tesla, and you may have heard of his tunneling project under the streets of California, led by his infrastructure startup, the Boring Company. Now, Musk is proposing that we bore holes in our skulls with the goal of embedding artificial intelligence (AI) hardware to make us smarter.
Musk’s Frankensteinian experiment, a type of neural “lace” called Neuralink, represents the latest in body-machine interface (BMI) technology. Though critics have decried this merging with AI as a “suicide of the human mind,” Big Tech is pursuing superintelligence with a ferocious appetite, and neural lace is the most popular pathway.
Simply put, neural lace embeds micron-width electrode threads directly into specific areas of the human brain to send and receive electrical impulses associated with patterns of neuronal activity. The premise is intuitive: if computers process information faster than humans (and they do), then embedding computer processors directly into the human brain—with both read and write functions—will enhance the brain’s ability to process information. Musk calls this a merger of biological and digital intelligence, or a symbiosis of human and artificial intelligence.
But in reality, this merger is nothing more than cyborgization. Neural lace is futile, morbid, and immoral—and it represents everything wrong with technology today.
Neural Lace Is a Bridge to Nowhere
Let’s pretend we can overcome the medical challenges of implant procedures so that they obtain FDA approval. Let’s imagine we can also overcome the technical challenges of interpreting electrical signals from neurons using decoding algorithms. Even if we pretend that neural lace designers can clear these hurdles, neural lace builds a bridge to nowhere. It’s a clumsy way of upgrading the human condition, much like installing a nuclear reactor in a bicycle to make it competitive with rocket ships; even if the installation is a success, the operation will fail.
Equipping the brain with AI software would do nothing to increase our mental powers unless we upgraded the hardware, too: the brain itself. As Professor Nick Bostrom, the leading expert on superintelligence risk, explains, “The extra data inflow would do little to increase the rate at which we think and learn unless all the neural machinery necessary for making sense of the data were similarly upgraded.”
Our noggins contain a complex jelly-like mass of axons, dendrites, synapses, and neurochemicals with billions of interconnections that we hardly understand. Our brain works by leveraging a billion years’ worth of wetware that evolved into the most sophisticated information-processing instrument in the world: vision. Forcing an upgrade to the brain in order to use AI is like installing software that immediately renders the hardware obsolete. One step forward, one step back. It makes the pursuit of neural lace futile.
Neural Lace Is Morbid
There are many health risks associated with installing neural lace in the human brain, but let’s assume for the sake of argument they can be overcome and neural lace implants become a routine procedure, much like LASIK eye surgery (which is Musk’s goal). Does that make neural lace any less morbid? The scalp must be peeled back, a hole must be drilled into the skull, and lace must be inserted directly into our grey matter.
Wearable tech has gone far enough. We should not normalize brain implants as if it were a garden-variety routine medical procedure. Big Tech—and Big Business—are scrambling to create high-performing employees, but neural lace isn’t the kind of physical sacrifice business shareholders should expect. It doesn’t take a crystal ball to foresee how competitive market forces might create a slippery slope that encourages increasingly extreme forms of cranial implants. Once the first CEO comes to work with an AI chip implanted in his or her skull, doing so will become an expectation of the CEO’s peers and underlings.
At a time when the medical and psychological benefits of “unplugging” from technology are becoming widely appreciated, connecting our brains directly to our cell phones via a physical implant is a giant leap in the wrong direction.
Neural Lace is Immoral
Even if neural lace technology works, it should be avoided for public policy reasons. Just because we can, does not mean we should. By design, neural lace gives the app’s user direct access to manipulating the user’s brain states. Musk’s team is devoted to the idea of connecting the hardware wirelessly to external devices, like Bluetooth to your phone. As Musk himself boasts, the implant will literally be controlled through an iPhone app.
While the intention is to give the user control over his or her mind, in reality, the app would give the developer (or government) unprecedented and unmanageable control over the user. At a time when trust in corporations and the government is at an all-time low, and as data breaches at Big Tech companies flare like a persistent rash, giving outsiders direct access to our brain activity is a risky proposition. So long, individual sovereignty. So long, personal privacy.
Assuming Musk’s neural link works as designed, it would eliminate the gap between Big Brother and your most intimate thoughts. We would be installing the grown-up equivalent of baby monitors in our brains. There is a short jump between monitoring a brain and manipulating it. If our devices are insecure (and they are), why should we embed them in our brains? Neural lace, in a full-fledged form, would render our brains just as hackable as our computers. That’s not progress; it’s enslavement.
There Is a Better Way: The Humachine
When compared to the sleek processing power of AI, humans tend to get a bad rap. But human beings are gifted with intuition, vision, creativity, care, playfulness, aesthetic tastes, emotional intelligence, and leadership. These are uniquely human strengths that are hard, if not impossible, to replicate in AI systems. Instead of trying to change humans to make us more like robots, or trying to program robots to make them more like humans, we should design our enterprises using work structures and procedures that allow us to leverage machine strengths to offset human weaknesses, and vice versa. The result is a Humachine: a combination of the better qualities of humankind with the mechanical efficiencies of AI technology.
We should reject the premise that progress requires altering the brain, which is Earth’s greatest biological achievement and the most complex structure in the known universe. We should work with what nature gave us. We should normalize the unadulterated human body. We should design our work systems to fit the status quo human form, rather than modifying the human form to match the demands of work. Following these principles, we can harness the best of technology and humanity to create superintelligence, all without turning humans into cyborgs.