Saturday, June 15, 2024

Elon Musk’s brain chips could be brilliant

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Elon Musk’s Neuralink made earlier this week with the news that it has successfully implanted a wireless brain chip in a human for the first time.

Great news for humanity, or the beginning of the end?

That very much depends on your opinion, and which Neuralink you’re thinking about.

There’s the exciting start-up, racing to reverse brain disease, restore sight and bring movement back to those paralysed by accidents.

And the company of the future, aiming to connect us all directly to the internet and help us communicate telepathically.

Mr Musk co-founded Neuralink in 2016. It was registered as a medical research company, but its official aim is to ‘create a generalised brain interface to restore autonomy to those with unmet medical needs today and unlock human potential tomorrow’.

Using brain chips, officially known as brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), is not unique to Neuralink. In recent months teams around the world have made magnificent strides in restoring movement and revolutionising communication through similar technology.

In May, a man who was paralysed in a cycling accident more than a decade ago regained the ability to stand and walk naturally using a ‘wireless digital bridge’, which restored the connection between his brain and spinal cord.

And in August, a woman who lost the ability to speak after a stroke was given the ability to communicate through an avatar simply by thinking – a BCI turned her thoughts into words.

These are, frankly, mind-blowing steps forward in technology that will completely change the lives of those who use it.

This revolution is something Neuralink wants to be a part of – and with human testing in progress, is well on the way.

But what Neuralink is doing, and what Mr Musk has planned, are poles apart right now.

Announcing the successful venture on X, his social media platform, Mr Musk added that the brain chip, called Telepathy, also ‘enables control of your phone or computer, and through them almost any device, just by thinking’.

‘Enables’ may be slightly optimistic at this point, but the goal is clear.

An improved human race of cyborgs.

No joke. Speaking in 2017, Mr Musk said the ‘merger of biological intelligence and machine intelligence’ would be necessary if humans were to stay economically valuable – and that was before we were competing with ChatGPT.

With advances in AI happening at lightning (some say terrifying) speed, we can expect work behind the scenes at Neuralink to be considering not just how it can further help those with brain and spinal injuries, but those who, say, want to be able to understand any language.

And if Mr Musk has his way, you won’t even be speaking that language, just communicating it telepathically.

‘We won’t need to talk,’ he said, speaking on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast in 2020. It will just be thought.

For introverts, that may sound dreamy, but these advances could come at a cost.

The ‘whole-brain interface’ Mr Musk dreams of will connect people to each other like never before, but can we be sure we’ll always have control of who exactly we’re connecting with?

We know from our many ‘smart’ devices that anything connected to the internet is vulnerable, often in ways we didn’t imagine at first.

Already the police have been given access to recordings from an Alexa home speaker for a murder investigation. A brain implant that records memories could one day lead to suspects – or even anyone vaguely linked to or even near the scene of a crime – to have their chips read.

If that sounds paranoid, remember that already, innocent people have already been suspected of crimes just because their phone told police they were in the area.

We all have to interact with the government in one way or another occasionally. Once you have a chip, how sure are you that it isn’t handing over other information you weren’t willing to share?

There may come a point at which we have no choice. Writing for The Conversation, Dr Christopher Markou considered another ethical conundrum.

‘What if the tech normalises to such a point that it becomes mandatory for future generations to have a whole-brain implant at birth to combat illegal or immoral behaviour (however defined)?’ he asked.

And if we want to go full Matrix nightmare dystopia, what if your brain implant is hacked to create false memories, or erase real ones?

The opportunities presented by brain-computer interfaces are huge, life-changing, and potentially species-changing.

But before the technology advances too far, there are many ethical and legal issues to consider – something we did not do properly at the birth of the internet. Now we are playing catch-up for artificial intelligence.

Only last year, the UN warned about how AI chips ‘on steroids’ threatened mental privacy.

If ever there was a time to be ahead of the game, surely brain chips that could control our minds is it.

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