Dear Elon Musk, please keep the internet out of our brains

Musk’s goal for Neuralink is to prevent a future AI apocalypse by making our brains bionic.
Musk’s goal for Neuralink is to prevent a future AI apocalypse by making our brains bionic.

Summary

  • Neuralink's brain insert could launch an era of bio-connectivity, but a layer of friction between the thought of wanting to do something and actually going through with it online is necessary.

A lucky individual has become the first human to receive a brain implant from Neuralink, Elon Musk’s startup, marking a bold step towards being able to steer computers with our minds. The device, called Telepathy, is about the size of a quarter-dollar coin and was inserted with hundreds of wires and electrodes just under the skull. Its aim is to take “control of your phone or computer, and through them almost any device, just by thinking," according to Elon Musk. All this sounds great, so long as the device doesn’t plug people’s brains into the time-sucking matrix of distraction that we call the internet. Far from enhancing our lives, that could prove a step too far in being ‘connected.’

Neuralink seems to be far ahead of its peers in terms of technological prowess. While rival devices have roughly 16 electrodes for gathering brain data, Neuralink’s implant has more than 1,000, and it doesn’t need wiring to a bulky battery that’s implanted into a person’s chest, according to a recent deep dive on the company by Bloomberg’s Ashlee Vance. Musk, who wants Neuralink to perform surgeries on more than 22,000 people by 2030, will likely be the first to go mainstream, even if his “maniacal sense of urgency" means it may not be the most reliable product.

Musk has a history of over-promising milestones for his products, but he’s still managed to sell cars that partly drive themselves. There’s every reason to think that in the next five years or so, many more people will have his coin-sized computer interface in their brains. That will have profound implications for how we define human identity and connection, especially if these gadgets plug our minds directly into the web.

The internet has transformed over the last decade from a place filled with curated forums and niche websites, to a noisy mess of algorithms enticing you to click hundreds of other links, while social media has sucked people down rabbit holes of distraction. Imagine how much harder it will be to resist the lure of algorithms if you don’t even have to click a mouse or swipe a thumb to open a post. Now imagine doing that on the internet in five or ten years’ time, when it’s teeming with more AI-generated content than ever before, along with hyper-personalized algorithms that pull you in as many directions as possible.

Today’s keyboard and mouse act as healthy layers of friction between the thought of wanting to do something on the internet and doing it. And even then, people often find themselves jumping into behaviours that they wouldn’t do in the real world, like tweeting inept comments on Musk’s public town square, X (formerly Twitter).

When I reported on the exploits of Hacktivists Anonymous years ago, some online vigilantes told me that the barrier between what they thought and what they actually did in online forums was dauntingly thin as they fell deeper into groupthink and egged each other on to hack websites—before ultimately getting arrested. When there’s virtually no barrier between thinking and acting on the internet, people often proceed in ways they shouldn’t.

History is filled with visionaries whose grand plans for technology didn’t pan out exactly as they had dreamt. Mark Zuckerberg wanted to connect the world with Facebook, but ended up dividing people into political silos. OpenAI chief executive officer Sam Altman has said he wants to bring “trillions" of dollars of economic abundance to humanity, but so far, he’s mostly helped enrich his own company and Microsoft with his company’s generative AI products.

Musk’s goal for Neuralink is to prevent a future AI apocalypse by making our brains bionic. His reasoning is that a digital superintelligence will eventually become so powerful that it will out-think us, so we’ll need to add some digital smarts to our limbic system and neo-cortex to address that existential risk. “If you can’t beat them, join ‘em," the billionaire says.

Another potential benefit of the device would be helping those with paralysis. That would follow a long history of gadgets—from the computer mouse to text-to-speech—that first sought to assist people with disabilities before going mass market.

But there’s an obvious paradox here, as putting powerful AI into our skulls also brings its risks closer home. Giving our brains a direct connection to the web could make us far more vulnerable to its addictive pull, too. Neuralink may give awe-inspiring freedom to the world’s disabled, but as we marvel at Musk’s technological progress, we may also find ourselves sleepwalking into a new era where we wish we weren’t quite so plugged in. ©bloomberg

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