(ANTIMEDIA) Last week, Elon Musk confirmed that his company, NeuraLink, is working on the development of a brain-machine interface (BMI). For the last couple of years, Musk has made no secret of his fears of artificial intelligence advancing to the point where it overtakes its human creators. Musk believes that in order to safeguard the human race against a superintelligent machine apocalypse, we must essentially become them: cyborgs whose minds are internally augmented by advanced computer systems. Along the way, he believes, this transition will spawn countless benefits — and profitable industries — for humans.
The concept of a brain-machine interface (BMI) remained in the realm of science fiction until fairly recently. Now there are multiple private endeavors and even a DARPA-led coalition. Currently, there are three early BMI models: motor cortex stimulation, artificial ears and eyes, and deep brain stimulation.
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“We are aiming to bring something to market that helps with certain severe brain injuries (stroke, cancer lesion, congenital) in about four years,” Musk stated.
But these are just the earliest manifestations of what Musk believes will soon be a thriving industry. Tim Urban’s post at Wait But Why (make sure you have a head-scratching hour before you read) fleshed out some of the grittier details of what he basically refers to as the next phase of intelligent life on earth: the Wizard Era.
Musk envisions a world in which humans are outfitted with micro-sized “neural lace” technology. When it reaches its full potential, the effects will be nothing short of mind-blowing. We will be able to control physical objects with our thoughts, have conversations between minds with no words, and literally live other people’s experiences, including all forms of physical activity. Think of it as an amalgam of virtual reality and augmented reality but without any physical devices and telepathically controlled, a new “digital tertiary” layer of the brain.
Musk believes there will be therapeutic benefits, as well. By recoding their neural patterns, people will be able to better manage psychiatric and emotional problems, heighten their sensory perceptions, and vastly augment their knowledge base with a cloud-based memory and knowledge storage. With such advanced emotional communication, there will be an opportunity to instill a greater sense of empathy in people, as they will actually experience what it feels like to be someone else.
But with great promise comes great peril. Musk acknowledges there are risks involved, such as mind hacking, trolling, and surveillance. All the normal destructive tendencies of humans may follow us up the ladder. As for as people reading our thoughts, though, Musk says not to worry:
“People won’t be able to read your thoughts—you would have to will it. If you don’t will it, it doesn’t happen. Just like if you don’t will your mouth to talk, it doesn’t talk.”
Musk believes that with OpenAI, his open source non-profit artificial intelligence research company, he can democratize AI technology. Combined with NeuraLink, he believes this will lessen the existential risk posed by superintelligent machines by allowing us to keep up with the pace of augmentation.
Will humans embrace becoming machines? Musk, echoing futurist Ray Kurzweil, thinks the symbiosis will be natural, and that it has already started:
“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. You’re already a different creature. You can see this when they do surveys of like, ‘How long do you want to be away from your phone?’ and—particularly if you’re a teenager or in your 20s—even a day hurts. If you leave your phone behind, it’s like missing limb syndrome. I think people—they’re already kind of merged with their phone and their laptop and their applications and everything.”
There will be plenty of skeptics who believe this kind of technology is impossible, or that it won’t solve basic underlying problems with human civilization. But if humans are hardwired to be the way they are, if nature has coded them to have certain instincts and truths, perhaps they can be rewired and recoded in a way that frees them from biology. It certainly seems at least possible that a brain-machine interface could be the game-changing paradigm shift that allows humans to finally understand one another and achieve communion. That’s when the real advancement can begin.