The plan to merge human brains with computers

Neural Lace: The film Ex Machina predicted the rise of intelligent humanoid robots.

This week Elon Musk launched a new company which will meld minds and machines. Meanwhile, a paralysed man used electrical brain implants to move his hand. Is “the singularity” approaching?

In 2006, Bill Kochevar was riding behind a mail truck during a charity bike ride. The truck suddenly stopped. He “went head first into it”— and was paralysed for life.

But yesterday, a “groundbreaking” new study revealed that he is able to move his hands again. In fact, the electrical implants which have been embedded in his motor cortex allow him to drink and feed himself without help. “I’m still wowed every time I do something.”

There is a long way to go before he is fully independent. But it is an “exciting” step, said one doctor. The future of overcoming paralysis is now “brighter”.

A day earlier, the billionaire Elon Musk launched his newest company. He is already building electric cars and planning to send people to Mars. Now his latest venture, Neuralink, will develop “neural lace” technology. This means implanting electrodes in the brain to improve our “bandwidth” — essentially allowing people seamlessly to communicate with technology, without using a physical computer.

At first the company will focus on medical problems. But eventually it will be a way for Musk to ensure that humans can keep up with artificial intelligence (AI), which he sees as a huge “existential risk”.

AI has advanced quickly in the last year, becoming central to tech companies like Google and Facebook. Some people — like Musk and the physicist Stephen Hawking — worry that creating super-intelligent computers threatens humanity.

Others, like the futurist Ray Kurzweil, say that it will bring great benefits. He looks forward to “the singularity”, when technology advances so quickly that human life is “irreversibly transformed”. Or when, as Wired founder Kevin Kelly put it: “All the change in the last million years will be superseded by the change in the next five minutes.”

Merging our brains with AI computers could bring us close to such a moment. For Musk, it is a way to keep humans in charge. For Kurzweil, it is a way to improve ourselves. “We will be funnier; we will be more musical; we will increase our wisdom.”

Mind games

We are approaching the singularity right now, say some. Just look at Bill Kochevar; humans are already becoming “cyborgs”. Even those of us without brain implants rely on our smartphones as an extension of our minds. Meanwhile, AI is improving faster than anyone predicted. It is an astonishing time to be alive.

Don’t get ahead of yourself, say others. Staff at Neuralink describe the company as “embryonic”. AI gets a lot of hype, but it has not matched human intelligence. And it is daft to think that healthy people will soon undergo brain surgery just to make themselves a bit smarter. The singularity is still decades away, if it ever happens at all.

You Decide

  1. Would you like to ditch your smartphone and use “neural lace” technology instead?
  2. When will the singularity happen: in six months or ten years?

Activities

  1. List three ways that life could improve if our minds merged with computers, and three downsides. Discuss with a partner: is it worth it?
  2. The year is 2037. Neuralink is now as big as Facebook, and most people have brain implants. Write a short story about how society has changed.

Some People Say...

“Our sole responsibility is to produce something smarter than we are.”

Ray Kurzweil

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Neuralink was registered as a “medical research” company last July, and insiders have confirmed Musk’s involvement to The Wall Street Journal. Musk says he will give more details about the company next week.
What do we not know?
Many things — such as what exactly Neuralink will focus on first, how its “neural lace” technology will work, and what the company’s products will eventually look like. We also do not know whether AI will ever truly match human intelligence, or if it can become “conscious”.
What do people believe?
That computer scientists will eventually create machines which are much smarter than people. Some believe that this will be a huge benefit to humanity, as AI could help us cure diseases or fight climate change. Others think the robots might kill us all.

Word Watch

Motor cortex
The area of the brain responsible for hand movements. The sensors implanted here communicate with electrodes in his hand and arm.
Elon Musk
According to Forbes, he is worth $13.9 billion, making him the 80th wealthiest person in the world.
Electric cars
Tesla, plans to release later this year the $35,000 Tesla Model 3 which it says can drive for 215 miles without recharging.
Mars
Musk’s private space company, SpaceX, is already launching satellites. He hopes it will take tourists to the moon, and settlers to Mars.
Bandwidth
The speed of an internet connection. Musk was speaking metaphorically, referring to the speed of human thoughts.
AI
Computers which know how to “think”, Apple’s Siri is a basic example.
Ray Kurzweil
Author of The Singularity Is Near (Penguin 2005) and a “transhumanist” who hopes to become a cyborg and live forever.
Human intelligence
Although AI is good at very specific things, it has not achieved “general intelligence”. This includes the ability to learn new tasks by applying knowledge from other areas, something humans can do as children.