Brain-Computer Interfaces and the Future of Humanity

You should probably at least think about it.

By Eric Chudler, Ph.D. and Lise Johnson, Ph.D. | 23 April 2017
Psychology Today


Elon Musk is a big idea kind of guy. The billionaire businessman is behind the electric car manufacturer Tesla as well as the space exploration company, SpaceX. Musk’s newest big idea is Neuralink, a company that will build brain-computer interfaces (or try). The announcement has been met with the full gamut of human emotion, including a lot of confusion and a lot of hope on the part of neural engineering graduate students who think they might just get a job after all. It has also been met with a healthy dose of skepticism, because Musk’s newest venture is going to be a lot more difficult than colonizing Mars.

Neuralink’s end-goal is to merge human brains with artificial intelligence. Apparently, Musk is afraid of super-intelligent computers, and this is his strategy for mitigating the risk they pose to humanity. At least, that’s what he told Tim Urban who covered the topic in a long but entertaining post on his blog Wait but Why. Leaving to one side the issue of whether or not we should be worried about artificial intelligence, it’s interesting to consider how this vision of brain-computer interfaces fits into the field.

It might seem like science fiction, but the idea of connecting the brain to a computer isn’t all that new. The first human brain-computer interfaces were implanted for research in the late 1990s. There are now research groups all over the world pushing the edge of this technology ever forward. Neuralink, however, is taking a bit of a turn. So far, most of the brain-computer research has been focused on rehabilitation; these devices are designed to restore function after neurological disease or injury. For example, cochlear implants help people with profound hearing loss to hear and retinal implants help people who are blind to see. Neuroprostheses decode movement-related intentions from the nervous system and use them to control computer cursors or robotic arms for people with paralysis.

Merging the brain with an artificial intelligence, however, is categorically different. It is augmentation, and an extreme sort. If Neuralink accomplishes its ultimate goal, it will call into question what it really means to be human. That’s a big deal, and as humans, we might not want to accept that uncritically.

Of course, it is by no means clear that what Neuralink is proposing to do is even possible. It certainly isn’t possible with today’s technology. The human brain is a much tougher nut than electric cars or even rocket ships, if for no other reason than that we don’t even really know what the brain is doing. However, only suckers make bets against future technologies. As long as it doesn’t break any of the laws of thermodynamics, we shouldn’t say never. In any case, there will be advances in brain-computer interfaces, even if they don’t enable us to communicate telepathically. That means that now is a good time for us, as a species, to have a conversation about it.

It is also worth pointing out that Neuralink isn’t the only player in the brain-computer interface industry. Bryan Johnson’s new company, Kernel, is on the same bandwagon. Ready or not, humanity, here we go.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.

Eric Chudler, Ph.D. and Lise Johnson, Ph.D., are neuroscientists at the University of Washington.

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