Last week in my article titled “Scenes from the future”, I mentioned how recent advances in brain activity sensing technology are making possible what Prof X from the series “X-Men” can do. Basically, interpret what someone is thinking from a distance and also to control activity from a distance.
It’s quite interesting to note that this week on Monday, Elon Musk announced the launch of his new startup ‘Neural Link’. The new company is expected to design networks to link human brains with computers, and this will be achieved by a technique similar to embedding small electrodes in the brain. If you’ve been following Elon Musk on the topic of Artificial Intelligence, you will notice that typical to him, Elon has a contrarian view on whether AI is useful to human society in the long term.
Speaking to a select audience at MIT in 2014, he mentioned: “With artificial intelligence, we’re summoning the demon”. His notion is that with time we will be creating ASI or Artificial Super Intelligence. This is intelligence which is millions of times smarter than humans. What we will need to take a few decades to comprehend, ASI can do it intuitively. At that point in time, humans may no longer be in control of machines nor are we in a position to interpret their actions.
Irrespective of the number of safeguards that we build into these systems so that no accidental harm will be caused to the human civilization, it is extremely difficult to predict or control 3rd order and 4th order effects of an action. Therefore it’s very likely that a safeguard that we might put in the core operating system for protecting human beings, can turn out to be something that creates massive problems.
The strategy that Elon seems to be going after is to augment human processing abilities with that of machines. While human brain takes hundreds of thousands of years to make significant evolution, computers are doubling in capacity every two years following Moore’s law. Even this growth is set for exponential growth once quantum computing technology becomes mainstream. Therefore humans can augment their processing abilities by partnering with machines.
We’re already in partnership with machines for a few hundred years. However, this partnership is slow and requires intervention by using one’s fingers or voice. The promise of the “Neural Link” technology is that this can now happen instantaneously or at “The speed of thought”. All one has to do to change the channel once the technology becomes mainstream, is to “Think it”.
This for sure is quite amazing, but as with most technologies, Elon is not the only one working on this. In an article in Nature Nanotechnology in 2015, a group of engineers in Nanotech reported a successful experiment in which they injected sub-micrometer thick, centimetre-scale macroporous mesh electronics through needles with a diameter as small as 100 μm into the brains of mice. No noticeable negative impact on brain functioning was found, and interestingly the electronics was able to record the activity in the neurons.
While solving for Elon’s grand vision will take quite a while, comparatively simpler applications like handling prosthetics with more ease and potentially fixing neurological problems like epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease appear to be closer on the horizon. There are also more near-term opportunities like doing away with more surgically intensive alternatives for real-time brain wave monitoring
There are multiple institutions taking interest in this research including commercial institutions like Fidelity BioSciences and US defense. Last year Bryan Johnson the founder of Braintree invested USD 100 mn of his own money in a company called “Kernel”, that aims to solve the same problem as Elon Musk, though their focus is more medical.
While Elon Musk is looking at humans being able to augment human cognitive abilities by pairing with machines, a flip side to all this is that the Artificial Super Intelligence of tomorrow can potentially use this same technology to gain more instantaneous control of human beings. The conundrum remains.