Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | Is it possible to hack the brain to make us immortal?

To live very long and well, Indian billionaires invest in God, while American tech billionaires invest in becoming gods. For some time both the ideas seemed vacuous, but now, it appears that the tech billionaires may be more persuasive after all.

A few days ago, Elon Musk, the most famous billionaire in the world, whose chief interest is creating the future, announced that one of his companies, Neuralink, is working towards merging the human brain and the computer. It will achieve this by planting thousands of tiny electrodes into the brain that will then convert thought into signals, which can instruct a computer to do tasks. Eventually, man will know everything a computer does, and he will “achieve a sort of symbiosis with artificial intelligence".

Musk is among the many who are investing in a “brain machine interface" whose preliminary assignment is to solve the effects of brain diseases. Thus, Neuralink will first perform the minor tasks of God, which is to be useful and moral—make the blind see and the paralyzed feel. But its ultimate objective is to perform the major task of God, which is being God. After all, downloading the memory of a computer onto a human brain is omniscience, and uploading a human brain to a computer is immortality. A god, generally, has to be immortal and omniscient. Not coincidentally, these two vital properties have also been areas of manic concern for the Western elite, who have been hopeful of prolonging life and paranoid about what is vaguely called “artificial intelligence". The brain machine interface is a response to that. We will live long as computers. And, the sentient machine, it turns out, will be us.

Over the past few years, tech billionaires have invested considerable money in finding ways to prolong life. Prolonging healthy life might be immortality itself for the simple reason that the science of anti-ageing may grow so fast that it can keep delaying death in perpetuity. Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2009, told me a few months ago: “Californian billionaires are having such a good time at the party of life that they don’t want it to stop. They don’t want to go out into the cold night at their appointed time."

However, the results of their war against mortality have not been promising. The human body, it seems, is designed to perish.

But in a “symbiosis" of brain and machine, the body is dispensable, even upgradeable. Ray Kurzweil, a director of engineering at Google, is an evangelist of the idea that we are very close to uploading a human brain onto a computer. We will transfer ourselves onto beautiful, powerful and transient bodies. Who would have thought that singularity, which was once considered the moment when a machine became self-aware (and somehow evil), would come to mean the moment when a human became a machine?

Tech billionaires have long been paranoid about the sentient machine. Musk keeps talking about it. He has even said the “symbiosis" will save us from our fate as the “house cats" of machines.

I believe there are two major reasons why tech billionaires are so obsessed with the idea of machines taking over the world. One is that they consider themselves so intellectually and socially advanced that they cannot be afraid of anything merely human. The other reason is in the innate need of every human to feel oppressed by a superior force, and they are unable to feel oppressed by humans, so they see a bit too much in “artificial intelligence" to get their quota of oppression.

The brain machine interface, in its response to billionaire concerns, attempts to mechanize human frailty and humanize machine villainy.

All this might seem fanciful at the moment. There is more spurious science that involves the words “electrodes attached to the brain" than spurious anthropology that starts with, “In hunter-gatherer societies…" A few years ago, scientists who attached electrodes to a man’s brain even declared him the happiest man alive, even though he was French. The fact is we know very little about the brain, and the nature of thought and consciousness, and where the idea of self comes from.

But this does not mean the brain is sacred. As Musk said last week with passing scorn, “The brain is not some mystical thing". The human brain might be hackable even if we do not understand everything about them.

In the book, From Bacteria To Bach And Back, the writer and scientist Daniel Dennett attempts to deglamourise the human mind. He argues that accidents and favourable circumstances can convert matter not only into complex organs like the eye and the heart, but also the mind. “Brains are more like termite colonies than intelligently designed corporations or armies." He also holds that neurons, the cells that form the nervous system, evolved from ancient microbes. They, “are in effect the domesticated descendants of very ancient eukaryotes…Composed of billions of idiosyncratic neurons that evolved to fend for themselves, the brain’s functional architecture is more like a free market than a “politburo" hierarchy where all tasks are assigned from on high."

The idea of thought seems special to thinkers, but contrary to our instincts, there might be nothing special about the mind, and the idea of self may not be beyond the general pointlessness of life. And all of philosophy might be just a set of dim questions asked too early in the life of science.

Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, who tweets at @manujosephsan

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