Elon Musk, founder of Tesla, OpenAI, and SpaceX, the first private company to launch a rocket into space, is starting a new company that will look into ways to link human brains to computers.
The company, named Neuralink, will develop technology to integrate brains and computers as a way to fix medical problems and eventually supercharge human cognition. Existing brain-computer interfaces, which are relatively simple compared to Musks's goals, can connect to a few hundred brain cells at a time. Those are already helping the deaf hear, the blind see, and the paralyzed move robotic arms.
Once researchers are able to understanding and connect interfaces to the 100 billion neurons in the brain, these linkages could essentially give people superpowers. Imagine sight that can zoom in on things that are far away. Damaged memories could be restored, depression cured and languages translated. Once these implants can transmit and receive information, it should be possible to think of a topic — or look at a tree or painting — and connect to the web for more information.
"The first use of the technology will be to repair brain injuries as a result of stroke or cutting out a cancer lesion, where somebody’s fundamentally lost a certain cognitive element. It could help with people who are paralysed by providing a neural shunt from the motor cortex down to where the muscles are activated," says Elon Musk. "I think we are about 8 to 10 years away from this being usable by people with no disability."
That potential has clearly captured Musk's interest, but his new project also seems to stem from his concerns about artificial intelligence. Super-intelligent AI could in theory lead to machines that become exponentially "smarter" than humans in every possible way. In the hands of a bad or insane actor — or in a situation in which AI were to somehow go rogue — that could pose an existential threat to humanity.
Elon Musk is betting on the possibility that melding human and artificial intelligence will make us more likely to survive this super-intelligent (and super-powerful) AI. He says that if we can think with AI, it allows AI to function as a third layer in our brain, where we could have AI that's built for us. So we have human intelligence and then we have artificial intelligence, and they're both us.
The idea here is that if we're all AI in a way, there's not really anyone that can get control over all the AI in the world, monopolize it, and maybe do bad things with it because they are contending with a millions and billions of people who have access to AI. It's much safer, even though it gives us all a lot more power. It's like you don't want one Superman on earth, but if you have a billion Supermen then everything is okay because they check and balance each other.
Musk believes that when it comes to interfacing with AI, high bandwidth is fundamental to the prospect of being AI, versus simply using AI: "The challenge is the communication bandwidth is extremely slow. When you’re outputting on a phone, you’re moving two thumbs very slowly. That’s crazy slow communication. … If the bandwidth is too low, then your integration with AI would be very weak. Given the limits of very low bandwidth, it’s kind of pointless. The AI is just going to go by itself, because it’s too slow to talk to," Elon Musk said.
"The faster the communication, the more you’ll be integrated—the slower the communication, the less. And the more separate we are—the more the AI is “other”—the more likely it is to turn on us. If the AIs are all separate, and vastly more intelligent than us, how do you ensure that they don’t have optimization functions that are contrary to the best interests of humanity? … If we achieve tight symbiosis, the AI wouldn’t be “other”—it would be you and with a relationship to your cortex analogous to the relationship your cortex has with your limbic system."
"We’re going to have the choice of either being left behind and being effectively useless or like a pet—you know, like a house cat or something—or eventually figuring out some way to be symbiotic and merge with AI. A house cat isn't such a bad outcome, by the way," says Elon Musk.
One objection might be whether a whole-brain interface would be enough of a change to make integration likely, since there would still be a vast difference between our thinking speed and a computer’s thinking speed. But increasing bandwidth by orders of magnitude would make it better. Musk emphasizes that time is of the essence here:
"The pace of progress in this direction matters a lot. We don’t want to develop digital superintelligence too far before being able to do a merged brain-computer interface."
One thing to keep in mind as we think about all of this is that none of it will take you by surprise. You won’t go from having nothing in your brain to a digital tertiary layer in your head. The rise of super-intelligent AI is most likely still far away and brain-computer interfaces still have a ways to go, too. They will depend on smaller and biologically safer computer chips, as well as better brain maps. But in fact, we're still in the early stages of understanding the brain, the "most complex object in the universe."
The "technological singularity" may come gradually, and by the time the shift actually begins to happen, we’ll all be very used to the technology. But as Musk sees it, we're closer to that future than we think:
"We already have a digital tertiary layer in a sense, in that you have your computer or your phone or your applications. The thing that people, I think, don’t appreciate right now is that they are already a cyborg. You’re already a different creature than you would have been twenty years ago, or even ten years ago ... If you leave your phone behind, it’s like missing limb syndrom."
Someday in the future, we may not need a rocket anymore to go to Mars. We'll simply invoke the exact same experience in our brain, any time we like. Which might even be an explanation for the infamous Fermi-paradox.