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How Elon Musk and Neuralink aim to meld minds and machines with a ‘Wizard Hat’

Brain-computer interface
A researcher wears an electrode-equipped cap in an experiment aimed at demonstrating direct brain control of a computer. (University of Washington / National Science Foundation via YouTube)

Three weeks after word leaked out that billionaire deep-thinker Elon Musk was backing a venture called Neuralink, his detailed vision for linking brains and computers is laid out in a 36,000-word white paper.

Complete with stick figures.

To explain it all for us, Musk turned to Tim Urban, the creator of the Wait But Why website. Urban has crafted similarly illustrated long reads about the SpaceX rocket company and the Tesla electric company, the two ventures that currently occupy most of Musk’s time as CEO.

Urban writes that wrapping his brain around Musk’s vision for Neuralink’s “Wizard Hat” has been, if anything, more challenging than explaining the Tesla vision for an electric economy on Earth or the SpaceX vision for colonizing Mars:

“Not only is Elon’s new venture — Neuralink — the same type of deal, but six weeks after first learning about the company, I’m convinced that it somehow manages to eclipse Tesla and SpaceX in both the boldness of its engineering undertaking and the grandeur of its mission. The other two companies aim to redefine what future humans will do — Neuralink wants to redefine what future humans will be.

Urban starts with a tutorial on basic neuroscience, but hits his stride when he turns to Musk’s plan for the future of brain-computer interfaces. Along the way, the University of Washington’s experiments with brain-controlled video games and Seattle science-fiction author Ramez Naam come in for shout-outs.

Neuralink’s first giant leap would be to create implantable brain interfaces modeled after the electrode-laden cochlear implants and retinal implants that give deaf and blind people some semblance of hearing and sight.

“We are aiming to bring something to market that helps with certain severe brain injuries (stroke, cancer lesion, congenital) in about four years,” Musk told Urban.

The innovations developed along the road would include coming up with electrodes that are easier to implant, such as the neural mesh that a Harvard-led research team injected into mouse brains. Another technological twist would make the brain implants capable of communicating wirelessly with the cloud.

Musk foresees an age when neural nets could be implanted by machines.

“The machine to accomplish this would need to be something like Lasik, an automated process — because otherwise you just get constrained by the limited number of neural surgeons, and the costs are very high,” he told Urban. “You’d need a Lasik-like machine ultimately to be able to do this at scale.”

The vision of machines implanting machines to interface with machines doesn’t necessarily conjure up a warm, fuzzy feeling. It fact, it sounds like the back story for “The Matrix.”

There’s another potential problem with the vision: Even though great advances have been made in neuroscience over the past few years, there’s so much we still don’t know about the brain.

Neuralink’s science team may speak optimistically about studying the interactions of a million neurons simultaneously, but that’s more than three orders of magnitude above the current state of the art. A year ago, neuroscientists at Seattle’s Allen Institute of Brain Science made a big splash with a study that untangled a mere 1,278 mouse neurons occupying a space smaller than a cubic millimeter.

It may be that the neurological equivalent of Moore’s Law, or Metcalfe’s Law, will kick in. But it’s more likely that Musk is characteristically overoptimistic when he gives Urban this estimate of the time required for developing implantable, wireless brain-computer interfaces for a mass market:

I think we are about eight to 10 years away from this being usable by people with no disability. … It is important to note that this depends heavily on regulatory approval timing and how well our devices work on people with disabilities.”

Urban (and Musk) acknowledge the ethical and existential issues that merging with the machines might raise. That’s one reason why Musk backed the creation of OpenAI, a non-profit foundation devoted to pushing artificial intelligence research in directions that are beneficial to humanity.

To tell the truth, this isn’t the first time the idea of linking brains with each other and with computers has been floated. William Gibson’s cyberpunk masterpiece, “Neuromancer,” laid out a similar philosophical landscape, focusing on brain-interface chips, he called microsofts back in 1984. And three years ago, physicist Michio Kaku laid out his own brain-net concept in a book titled “The Future of the Mind.”

But the fact that Musk has the money to move his ideas forward could make a big difference. And the way Musk sees it, bringing AI into our brains is the best way to guarantee that the rise of the machines will bring the rise of humanity as well.

“We’re going to have the choice of either being left behind and being effectively useless or like a pet — you know, like a house cat or something — or eventually figuring out some way to be symbiotic and merge with AI,” Musk told Urban. “A house cat’s a good outcome, by the way.”

Do you agree? Scan the full treatise at Wait But Why, with particular attention to the latter parts, and then feel free to weigh in.

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