Fellow time-travelling artificial intelligence uploaded into a passable, but not entirely convincing human body Elon Musk has unveiled a new company – Neuralink. Ever the man to go after whatever promises the greatest possible benefit to mankind, he will be developing brain-computer interfaces. This is excellent.
- The technology is good.
- Musk is being cleverly gradual to win public support.
- There are epic potential applications.
The potential is huge. In fact, there are not many technologies in the immediately achievable “borderlands” of science than BCI. Elon’s observation that we’re already cyborgs, but our bandwidth is comically low and most of the time limited to two meaty sticks (“thumbs”), is exactly right.
This technology has incredible potential, and is coming.
It is also the most triggering thing imaginable to the kinds of backwards technophobic oedipal romantics who oppose literally every new technology. There were probably people who went apeshit insane the first time someone tried to light a fire. Those marvels of intellectual insufficiency, who protest against anything too complicated for them to understand, which is most things, are going to lose their bloody minds.
“Whatever was invented before my time was a big leap for humanity, whatever is invented in my time is a terrifying apocalyptic doomsday heresy against nature, scientists are playing god, and we need to stop them, and get back to a hallucinatory notion of some static natural order, before they open a black hole in Switzerland, and we’re all eaten by tentacled GMO frankenfood tomatoes.”
Idiots. Nobody does more harm to the cause of humanity than those hysterical luddites. Promising technologies that could eradicate diseases and feed billions are held back for decades, because a stir-crazy housewife in Tennessee and a 20 year old sophomoron in something unscientific and vaguely marxist at the university of Wasrejectedbyallthegoodschoolsshire read something on the internet. God this makes me furious.
Few ideas are scarier to technophobes (or deserving of real ethical precautions) than a computer in your skull – or rather, a second computer in your skull complementing the biological one that’s already there.
Fortunately, Elon is being smart about the order of operations, and starting with simple medical applications to cure things like Parkinson’s and major depression. This has the advantage of being a relatively non-controversial (or manageably controversial) start that is virtually impossible for anybody to oppose without looking like a gigantic misanthropic cunt in front of all mankind (appropriately). It will also get people used to the idea of brain-computer interfaces, and lay the technological groundwork for more interesting applications in the future.
Intelligence enhancements and even merging with AI will follow in due time, as gradual developments. If the option of merging with artificial intelligence sounds scary, consider that only two futures are possible in a world where AI exists – either we’re left behind and made obsolete by a hopefully benevolent AI, or we become the AI. Since I do not find the life of an arbitrarily cherished pet poodle particularly dignified, I lean strongly in favour of option two.
If anyone is worried that brain enhancements will only be affordable for the rich, point me to one major medical innovation that didn’t become commonplace almost immediately. Ditto for anti-aging treatments.
Soon after introduction, it will be about as elitist and exclusive as ibuprofen. Capitalism will ensure it.
This is how real-world capitalism actually works.
A second possible challenge to BCI technology are governments and other totalitarian-aspiring actors. The temptation for mind control is big, and so the safety precautions must be even bigger. The uplinks into brains must upload Kung Fu and Solzhenitsyn, not love for the party and dear leader.
There’s even more in the technology’s future. Nothing smaller than immortality.
And not just in one, but in two ways: gradual replacement of squishy parts with electronic ones, a la Ship of Theseus, and cerebral preservation/intracranial implants. I will elaborate:
The Ship of Theseus is an ancient thought experiment – when you gradually replace all the parts of a ship, is it still the same ship? In other words, is identity preserved even with gradual total turnover of material? You better hope so, because this happens to biological organisms all the time.
A sufficiently advanced brain-computer system could gradually – neuron by neuron – replace the biological structure of your brain with more durable and reliable material. When, 50 years later, your entire brain, identical in structure and function, is now electronics, is it still you? Again, you better hope so. If not, why would there be a difference in the same functionality and signals being handled by a different medium?
It is plausible that people will choose to become immortal, or at least much more durable, by doing this.
The slow migration to a better medium has the advantage of avoiding a lot of the continuity problems of more discontinuous proposed methods, like scanning and digitizing a sliced-up frozen brain – which is essentially a variant of the transporter problem from Star Trek, where the result can be reasonably assumed to be a copy, with no preservation of the original being.
There is certainly continuity here in the gradual replacement of neurons with better synthetic ones, inasmuch as there’s a continuty of the identity of a brain over a lifetime. The solution to the paradox is contained in the very word – continuity. You, inasmuch as there is such a thing, are preserved when there is no step change, but a slow gradual turnover of components upon which, an identity we might consider continuous rests, like a river stays a river even though all the water molecules are arbitrarily interchangeable.
The transporter problem is that a copy retains the structure, but is another discontinuously manifested instance. The problem with, say, traumatic brain injury is that continuty is there alright, but there is catastrophic change of structure.
Only when both structure and instance are preserved, and only gradually changing, is there continuity. The slow replacement of biological parts with electronic ones fits the definition and should constitute personal continuation, though we will see when we do it.
There is one more related technology I’d like to propose.
To the degree that Arthur C. Clarke “invented” the communications satellite by writing about the concept in principle, I’m now inventing what we will call Intracranial Recovery Systems.
Death is loss of structure in the brain – either through trauma or oxygen deprivation. There are, in principle, straightforward ways to protect the brain from that, no matter what happens to the rest of the body. That doesn’t mean it would be straightforward to build and apply right now, but it is straightforward in terms of first principles, and we’re very good at dealing with “only” engineering challenges once precursor technologies, will and funding are there.
Imagine a sophisticated device, perhaps placed at the back of the neck, that would, in event of life-threatening injury, immediately switch blood supply to internal circulation (via clamps and bypasses at the main veins and arteries), and keep the brain alive by supplying it with oxygen and nutrients until the person is transported for treatment to a hospital. It could summon help automatically when the stabilisation procedure is triggered.
Normal blood circulation.
Emergency mode: internal blood circulation.
Depending on the severity and nature of the damage (trauma, old age, disease, poisoning…), the patient is either treated, or, with good enough brain-computer interfaces, and steel your stomach now, the head can be grafted onto a new body – a bionic copy, a clone of the original body, a giant robot with laser cannons – and that’s that.
If that sounds yucky, consider that the alternative is dying. Congratulations on never seeing a dead or very sick person, then. That tends to change your mind. Body transplants and robot bodies are, emotionally, a meadow full of butterflies and puppies compared to that.
The functionality that will allow paralysed people to walk will also allow full body transplants (which is more accurate than calling them head transplants) and cool robot bodies.
In case the patient’s condition is beyond the capabilities of medicine, the device can stabilise and prepare the brain for cryopreservation, until medicine advances sufficiently to allow recovery.
Almost anything, short of an artillery round to the face, is going to be survivable. This is huge.
There is so much more here than curing neurological diseases and improving cognitive capacity.
I would be very surprised if Elon didn’t have such future functionalities in mind. In fact, odds are that his mind will one day be in one of these future functionalities (see what I did there?).
See you in the future.
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