For those who’ve been living living under a rock lately, Elon Musk finally got around to giving us the Neuralink update he promised us on the Joe Rogan podcast last year. Now that we’ve all had time to digest it, what it has to say is a little terrifying.
That’s the device that Elon Musk proposes to use to inject electrodes into your brain.
Most people tend to think of Elon Musk as the guy responsible for Tesla Motors and SpaceX. A few might remember that he created Paypal. Still others might remember him as the guy who inspired panic on Wall Street when he (gasp!) smoked marijuana on that previously-mentioned Joe Rogan podcast.
Probably very few people think of him as the person who could potentially either cause or prevent the extinction of the human race. Which is a little strange, given how openly he talks about it.
For example, skip to 7:53 in the Neuralink announcement:
“The thing that will ultimately constrain our ability to, uhh…be symbiotic with AI, is bandwidth. So, in the limit…after solving a bunch of of brain-related diseases, there’s the existential…it’s mitigation of the existential threat of AI. Or, yeah…this is the point of it. (nervous laugh)”
Elon Musk says stuff like this all of the time. He’s made it extremely clear in multiple interviews that he thinks AI could eliminate the human race, having once likened its creation to “summoning a demon” that can’t be controlled. The goal of Neuralink isn’t to control the demon or stop it from being summoned, but to symbiotically merge with it.
Not that there’s anything wrong with symbiotic relationships. In fact, it could easily be argued that the current human relationship with computers is already symbiotic. They provide us with entertainment and driving directions, and we provide them with reproductive and evolutionary capabilities. There wouldn’t be billions of smartphones in the world if we weren’t manufacturing them, and a 2019 smartphone is a lot more capable than a 2009 smartphone. If you think of computers as living creatures, humans have certainly contributed a great deal to their growth.
It’s possible that when they become self aware, they might even appreciate that.
Humans, meanwhile, will probably eagerly stick computers into their brains. Sure, we can talk about curing degenerative brain diseases, but most people reading this are probably more excited about the enhancements this technology could bring. Being able to live stream video of everything you see. Having picture-perfect recall. For that matter, imagine sticking your smartphone into your head, and being able to simply think about somebody on your contact list and then have a direct brain-to-brain conversation with them. Neuralink could plausibly turn the human race in a global, telepathic hivemind.
But the real draw for the average person is going to be full-dive VR.
Welcome to the Matrix. Or Sword Art Online if you prefer. And isn’t it fascinating that both of those stories contain horror elements? Full-immersion VR fundamentally means sticking an intermediary between yourself and your external reality. That’s the point of it. But what are the implications?
Lots of virtual celebrity orgies, for one. Deepfakes have already brought us halfway there. Or for the more sentimentally-minded, perhaps getting to see lost loved ones or play with long-dead childhood pets. What about being the star in your own action movie – maybe jousting with lightsabers on the back of wooly mammoths while hanging out with Jessica Rabbit? Full-dive VR will enable those sorts of experiences. It won’t be all bad.
But for all its benefits, a VR-capable brain interface means that once you accept the implant, you can never again be sure that what you’re experiencing bears any resemblance to the real world.
Uncanny Valley, a short film by Federico Heller, explores one possible future for augmented reality
This is essentially the ultimate man in the middle attack, applied directly to your brain. Imagine you want to buy a widget, so you place an order online and type your credit card number into a web browser. But instead of that order being received by the company, imagine that a hacker intercepts it. He has your credit card number now. Obviously that’s bad, but if you never receive an order confirmation you’re probably going to be a bit suspicious. So what if that hacker takes the order you placed, and then passes it on to the company, and when they send the confirmation, he intercepts that too and passes it back to you?
In that case, neither you nor the company have any way to know that anything’s wrong, because you’ve both received exactly what you expected to receive. So now imagine that the hacker decides to start making changes. You place an order for a widget, and he relays an order for a variety pack of bright pink dildoes to be delivered to his girlfriend. He then intercepts the order confirmation, and delivers a confirmation to you thanking you for your purchase of a widget. You see the bill on your credit card and think nothing’s wrong because you did place an order. Except that your order was never placed, his was, and you’re left none the wiser.
Now try to imagine that the “hacker” is a third party device inside your brain with complete control over everything your senses tell you. Imagine it filtering out that truck driving towards you and replacing it with the view of a clear and empty road, up until the moment that truck plows into you. Imagine it swapping two different names you see on a ballet, so that you vote for the wrong candidate. Or if you want to be less subtle, imagine spending the rest of your life seeing and hearing screaming babies being ground up in meat grinders…even when your eyes are closed and even after you’ve plucked them out in horror, because it’s feeding your brain that input directly without your eyes being required at all. Trusting a third party to mediate your subjective experience is a dangerous proposition.
“Oh, but we could simply turn it off.”
What makes you think you’ll be able to? How would you even know it’s off when it’s the thing controlling your sensory experience? When you see the shutdown message or the little green light go out or whatever, how will you know it’s not simply feeding you a manufactured experience of what looks like it turning off while it continues to feed you a false reality? Again, take a look at where deepfakes are. It’s not going to be very many more years until real-time editing of a person’s entire sensory experience will be practical.
Once you implant a device to act as intermediary between your brain and real life, you will never again know for sure that what you’re experiencing bears any resemblance to external reality. It will be forever giving up control of your life, and these aren’t even the most dystopian scenarios. Elon Musk has explicitly stated that Neurallink’s electrodes will feature both read and write capability. Why bother changing perception to manipulate humans into doing what you want when you can directly rewire their brains to turn the human race into a distributed cloud computing network? The Matrix movies envisioned computers using human brains as batteries, but what could an AI do with several billion brains worth of processing power?
People wouldn’t even fight it. The AI could offer it as a feature in its sales pitch: let it rent background processing time on your brain while you sleep (You’re not using it, you won’t even miss it!) and in exchange it will pay for the implant surgery and throw in free, unlimited access to virtual celebrity orgies 24 hours a day. A lot of people would go for that. Or better yet, do you want to be thin but hate working out? Have it implanted into the motor control center of your brain, and let it handle all that unpleasant working out for you while you laze about in a virtual world full of butterflies and rainbows.
Until the day the AI disables the off switch and turns hundreds of millions of people into helpless slaves riding around as passengers in their own bodies.