Neuralink and Elon Musk’s quest to own the future

  • Themes: Science, Technology

Elon Musk's new brain implant, Neuralink, has been sold as a way of helping people with various ailments and disabilities. But is he moving too fast?

A poster for the film, The Brain That Wouldn't Die.
A poster for the film, The Brain That Wouldn't Die. Credit: Keith Corrigan / Alamy Stock Photo

Latest Elon Musk news: a judge has stopped him paying himself an annual salary of $55 billion and he has implanted a computer on the surface of somebody’s brain.

Pretty routine stuff in Muskland but you should always read between the lines. The implant – known as Neuralink – has been sold as a way of helping people with paralysis, depression, blindness and so on. But, being Elon, he can’t quite stick to the non-threatening script.

Ultimately, he has said, Neuralink would be a ‘general population device’ that would eventually access and store our thoughts, ‘a back-up device for your non-physical being, your digital soul.’ In fairness, he has partially rescued himself from even this case of alarming sci-fi overreach by saying his implant would be a way of giving humans the ability to match the inroads of AI ‘which I think is an existential problem.’

But, first things first, Neuralink is intended to go to market with a product called Telepathy. Musk tweeted or, rather, Xed, this announcement.

Telepathy ‘enables control of your phone or computer, and through them almost any device, just by thinking. Initial users will be those who have lost the use of their limbs. Imagine if Stephen Hawking could communicate faster than a speed typist or auctioneer. That is the goal.’

Meanwhile, of course, he is building rockets in order to establish a human colony on Mars. He hopes to die there though ‘not on impact’. Musk just can’t leave our species alone; he doesn’t want to just sell us stuff, he wants to improve us. It is alleged he is not quite so nice to other species. Animal rights groups have claimed that 1,500 animals – including 280 sheep, pigs and monkeys – have died in the labs of Neuralink. The future is on the far side of a lake of animal blood.

This, startlingly, made a big splash in the Daily Mail – ‘Inside Elon Musk’s Neuralink lab where 1,500 animals have been killed and test monkeys were subjected to “extreme suffering.”’ Apparently something called Bioglue was used to fill holes left in the monkey’s heads.

The first thing to say about all this is that Neuralink is not, strictly speaking, new. We have been able to tinker with human brains for some time. Most famously in the US, Austin Beggin was paralysed from the shoulders down after a car accident. Now two devices on his head detect electrical movements in his brain when he imagines moving his arms. Cuffs on his arm pick up the signal and the imaginary movement becomes real.

At Stanford University scientists placed sensors in the brain of a man paralysed from the neck down. These could pick up signals when he thought of writing words and translate them into text on a computer. More familiar are the cochlear implants which improve hearing by electrically stimulating the auditory nerve.

Many scientists without billions of dollars to spend have made such cautious advances. There is, in short, little doubt that something like Musk’s Neuralink may be possible. Equally, many scientists say he is moving too fast and, indeed, Neuralink employees have anonymously agreed.

Laura Cabrera , a neuroethicist, has been surprised by the speed with which the Food and Drug Administration allowed Musk to go ahead with a human trial. She also raised a point about Musk’s judgment: ‘Is he going to see a brain implant device as something that requires not just extra regulation, but also ethical consideration? Or will he just treat this like another gadget?’

As many Musk-sceptical neuro scientists have pointed out and as 1,500 animals have discovered to their cost, fiddling with brain electricity is dangerous. One obvious risk with Neuralink arises from the way it works. A small disk is planted on the brain surface.

‘It is,’ Musk says, ‘a Fitbit in your skull,’ ‘with all the sensors you’d expect to see in a smartwatch.’

From this disk tiny wires extend into the brain. What if these wires migrate randomly?

The problem is that we don’t know as much about the brain as Musk seems to think we do. We know a lot about the structure but little about how it works in the kind of intricate detail to build what Musk calls his ‘everything device’, something that enhances every aspect of our minds.

‘I think it dismisses the level of complexity of the whole thing,’ says John Donoghue, a neuroscientist at Brown University, ‘Tackling each condition is a big effort, right? And it could take a long time. And so, I think we have to be very careful to respect the dignity of the people we’re trying to help.’

Muskies may respond that the level of complexity of building electric cars from scratch and better rockets than NASA’s was similarly high. But their hero did it. Not that he is infallible, as Twitter users know. The delivery of his X replacement for the social network has been poorly executed.

There are yet further dubious implications of the Neuralink. If it works as intended then it will be connected to your phone, your watch and your computer; they, in turn, would be connected to the Cloud. What you then have to face is the possibility that every passing thought or impulse you have may become globally available. Advertisers, hackers, governments, criminals of all sorts would descend on this hitherto private realm to exploit you, judge you, steal from you or, if you happen to be in Putin’s Russia, kill you or chuck you in prison forever.

This points to the much bigger issue of the extent to which we will permit technology to change our lives at the most fundamental level. Over the last 300 years our species has become used to world-changing technologies and, over the last thirty years we have enthusiastically welcomed mind-changing tech in the form of computers, mobile phones and so on. The next step is not to change minds from the outside but from the inside.

Musk has recognised that in his claim that Neuralink will permit the human mind to become competent to survive against the inroads of AI. He is saying we can protect our species identity from the assault of the robot species that are likely to emerge in the near future by embracing mind enhancement now.

This process would, of course, grind to a halt if Musk’s race to get inside our heads resulted in some grotesque failure. Marcus Gerhardt, CEO of Blackrock Neurotech, is alarmed at the prospect.

‘The communications coming out of Neuralink too often sounds like cowboy activity, right?’ He added that some neurosurgeons ‘are petrified every day that something terrible could happen there and affect the rest of the space.’

But it is hard to imagine Musk ever grinding to a halt. He is, in his own mind, the future that should happen.

‘What I’m trying to do,’ he has said, ‘is to maximise the probability of the future being better.’

Well, maybe. But it is certainly true that, if you disagree with that, you are going to have a hard time stopping his quite staggering mix of determination, hubris and self-belief. It took a judge to halt his pay demands, it will take much more than that to thwart his demands of our species.


Bryan Appleyard