Neuralink – The Next Stage or the Doom of Humanity?

 “The first human patient will soon receive a Neuralink device”, Elon Musk claimed in a tweet in September of this year. Neuralink, a commonly known Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) company founded by Musk, aims to insert flexible ‘threads’ into a person’s brain. These threads will read brain signals and transmit that data to a device, allowing individuals to control the device with their thoughts. The implications are both terrific and terrifying, and as the exploration of this topic deepens, increasing conflict arises regarding its potential and the associated risks.

Let’s explore various facets of Neuralink, starting with its potential. The concept seems straight out of a science fiction movie — the ability to control the physical world directly from the brain. The prospective applications are incredibly transformative, from curing various diseases and disabilities to changing the fundamental way we process information. Beyond the ‘wow’ factor, it holds significant promise in the medical field, particularly for those with paralysis. Neuralink’s technology could potentially restore movement to paralyzed individuals by capturing and transmitting brain signals to limbs, even when the spinal cord is damaged. As such, the first and current focus is to help people with disabilities.

“If you have quadriplegia due to cervical spinal cord injury or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), you may qualify. Learn more about our trial by visiting our recent blog post.”  Tweet from Neuralink in Sept 2023.

Some reports have suggested that the technology can even cure blindness. This scenario involves a Neuralink implant where a camera, akin to a GoPro, wirelessly transmits signals to the brain, potentially restoring vision for blind individuals. Some reports even suggest applications for mental health, as the brain implant can potentially stimulate connections to the prefrontal cortex to enhance cognitive functions.

Beyond aiding people with disabilities, Neuralink could fuse our brains with AI systems, enhancing cognitive capacity. Elon Musk envisions Neuralink playing a role in reducing AI and civilizational risks by vastly improving human-to-AI and human-to-human bandwidth. This connection could empower our brains to perform tasks at the speed of AI systems. Soon, he claims, we will all have the capabilities and knowledge of powerful AI systems in our brains, allowing us to solve complex problems in seconds which could propel humanity into a new stage of development.

“In the long term, Neuralink hopes to play a role in AI risk civilizational risk reduction by improving human to AI (and human to human) bandwidth by several orders of magnitude.”  Elon Musk’s tweet in Sep 2023.

While these possibilities offer a glimpse into a remarkable future, ethical concerns abound. Safety is a primary issue, especially to achieve Neuralink’s intent to integrate AI systems into the brain. These devices will need to be implanted inside our brains, which is not a completely risk-free procedure. In particular, reports of adverse effects on test monkeys raise questions. While the company vehemently denied those reports, the long-term safety of people who get these implants needs to be studied and closely monitored.

Furthermore, the digitization of thoughts raises privacy concerns. In a world where companies mine digital activities for profit, the sanctity of internal thoughts could be compromised. Imagine that in the current world, every digital activity (or, in some cases, even non-digital footprint) is mined by companies to sell their products. Our internal thoughts were the final frontier of privacy, but now, this technology could enable companies like Meta or Google to access our thoughts and sell them to their advertisers.

Hacking neural implants or unauthorized access to thoughts poses serious threats, potentially impacting criminal justice systems and individual privacy. What if the brain implants are hacked or if the police can access people’s thoughts without consent? This raises interesting questions; for example, do you incarcerate a person who’s thinking of committing a crime even before they do that? This scenario is pulled straight from Tom Cruise’s blockbuster movie ‘Minority Report,’ but it can become a reality with Neuralink.

Perhaps the most consequential impact will be on societal inequity. The high cost of this technology could frame a divide between the ultra-rich, who can afford enhancements, and the rest of society. This scenario could shift competition from natural capabilities to the affordability of brain enhancements, resembling a ‘Gattaca’ scenario.

While Neuralink holds the potential to redefine human evolution, its development must be closely monitored due to ethical considerations. Brain-computer interface companies, like Neuralink, should prioritize transparency in sharing safety data. As this technology progresses, the associated practices and regulations need to stay ahead; we will need new privacy laws, digital security paradigms, and human rights safeguards to ensure responsible implementation. More importantly, our society will need to adapt to preserve rights and places for “organic” people.

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