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The plan to merge human brains with computers

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 Or when, as Wired founder Kevin Kelly put it: “All the change in the last million years will be superseded by the change in the next five minutes.”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. KeywordsAI - A computer programme that has been designed to think. 

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