American tech companies want to develop a brain-computer interface. It’s time we talked about it.
A single job posting can cause quite a stir. That’s what happened when Elon Musk's company Neuralink made public its search for a director of clinical trials. That’s not what you need in the car or rocket business. But it’s exactly what you need when it comes to connecting the human brain to the Internet. And that’s what Neuralink wants to do. Founded in 2016, the company aims to develop a brain-computer interface that will enable humans to think their way into the Internet, enriching their own brain power with the computing potential of AI systems. Is this science fiction? Not really.
Back in August 2020, Musk mounted the big stage on his own two legs to demonstrate how the technology works on pigs. In April 2021, Neuralink published a video showing a monkey playing computer tennis, first with a joystick and then without. The monkey simply directs the cursor with its thoughts via an implanted wireless chip in its brain. Ping-pong becomes brain-pong.
And this year humans will get their turn. That’s why Neuralink is seeking experienced medical professionals to conduct clinical trials with the first human test subjects while also clarifying regulatory issues with the authorities. Musk is planning nothing less than a technological revolution in human thinking.
He is not the only one working on brain-computer interfaces. Several large research groups have taken up the topic over the years and some start-ups in the U.S sense big business with the “braincloud of the future.” But first, what many, including Musk, want to achieve in the field could be medically useful. Research has long reported exciting successes in helping people with Locked-in syndrome once again communicate with the world. Simply put, the brain-computer interface reads neural signals, converting them into computer text, or computer language. For people who have been cut off from the world and their fellow human beings due to illness, this can be a blessing.
But the question remains: What happens when commercial operators enter the field? Then, it’s less about alleviating illness-related conditions than it is about the economic temptation to ignite the next stage of networking for humanity. The world first took notice when Facebook announced in 2019 that it was working on a noninvasive mind reading technology. The aim here is also to help disabled people communicate in another way. Beyond this, though, the idea is to enable users to operate their devices through thought control.
In the meantime, Facebook is primarily working on setting up the metaverse as a virtual parallel universe, in which we will be able to communicate with the world directly through our thoughts. One could say that this will be the most immersive networking experience humans have ever had. And maybe Facebook will turn us into monkeys, as Neuralink showed with its brain ping-pong.
Ethical guidelines are needed
A deeper analysis of what might eventually be possible with such technology raises radical questions: How can we ensure that brain data, or even the brain-computer interface, is protected from hackers? How can we ensure that strangers do not suddenly gain access to the most private thing we have: namely, our thoughts? Such applications violate several fundamental human rights. We urgently need a discussion about the right to freedom of thought and how our private sphere can be safeguarded in future.
Elon Musk outlined his thoughts about the future when he founded Neuralink. He assumes that the rapid progress of Artificial Intelligence will eventually outpace human intelligence such that AI will become smarter than humans. Whoever wants to remain competitive in the “thinking of the future” will have to think differently and better. Here, the brain implant comes into play, with the human brain merged with a braincloud enhanced with AI. And finally, René Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” will be irrelevant, as by then something will be thinking inside me. Whether I am that thing will be a question that others will have to answer. Or something that no one can answer.