There is no question that Elon Musk currently ranks among the most influential billionaires of the 21st century. Among the likes of Richard Branson, Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, Musk has managed to carve himself out as perhaps one of the most relatable and down-to-earth of the western elite, starting with his early creation of PayPal, to his development of Tesla as a worldwide car manufacturer and his ventures beyond Earth with SpaceX. But, with his newest company, has Musk finally bitten off more than he can chew?
The company, Neuralink, is Musk’s most recent venture. Founded in July 2016, it was created by Musk to create a join between the biological brain and mechanical artificial intelligence using “BMI’S” (Brain Machine Interfaces). Although in the immediate future the company plans to focus on treating brain-related illnesses, the ultimate goal is to achieve synthetic human enhancement, otherwise known as trans-humanism, through the use of a digital chip placed at, primarily, the motor cortex of the brain. The Motor Cortex of the brain is a collection of neurons that, when stimulated by an electrical signal, initiate physical movement of the limbs and other muscles. What Musk hopes to initially achieve with this technology, as he said in his first Neuralink presentation on the 16th of July, is for human beings to be able to control their smartphones using their mind.
This prospect to many people sounds exciting. You need only take a trip to the online Reddit forum r/Neuralink to gauge the enormous amount of hype surrounding this new technology. The community is crammed with endless posts dreaming of futures where we can Matrix-style download the ability to practice perfect Kung-Fu or discussions on how a super-intelligent race of human beings could be ostracised from society for their machine implants. But is Neuralink really just that? A dream machine plucked from the whims of a billionaire who doesn’t really understand the research and technology needed to implement it, and more importantly, make it safe for society?
The brain is the single most complex organ known in all of Biology. The study of it and most of the research surrounding it is held within the field of Neuroscience, currently amongst the newest and fastest emerging sciences. The reason for the rapid growth of this field is quite simple; there is just simply more we don’t know about how the brain works than what we do know, making this discipline almost irresistible to the scientifically curious. Questions such as how does consciousness manifest itself, or why do specific neurons when arranged in one circuit aid in the process of decision making, and the same neurons arranged in a different circuit carry out a completely different function have not just been left unanswered, there is simply no research team even close to being able to answer even the beginning stages of those questions. The scientific research just isn’t there yet. So why does Musk seem so confident in being able to create such technology and making sure it’s safe for the human brain when we can’t seem to even cover some of the basic research needed to develop it?
The lack of basic research is even admitted by one of Musk’s colleagues, who stated in the presentation that “There is currently no scientific research that meets all of our requirements.” Confusingly, this sentence is almost said with a sense of pride and is immediately followed up with an explanation of how all of this research is going to be done “in-house.” The completing of scientific research in-house is not necessarily a bad thing. There are multiple historical examples when one piece of scientific research has led to the invention of multiple machines or the discovery of multiple new types of medical drugs, and this helpful new research may be what Neuralink will prove to be most valuable for. But in my opinion, that’s about it.
In his most bizarre, brazen and fatal mistake to date, Musk has said he wants to have human trials, implants actually installed in the human brain by next year. Not only is this decision purely ridiculous considering the fact that his team hasn’t even finished their primary research yet, its also insanely dangerous. The robot that his team has built to install the technology looks like an impressive piece of machinery, but that impression is quickly washed aside when you find out the robot only has an 87.1% success rate, plus or minus 12.6%. That means that at it’s worst, the robot has only a 74.5% rate of surgery success, translating to serious injuries for roughly 26 people for every 100 operated on. Factoring in this statistic, the idea of human trials by 2020 is almost laughable, were it not so dangerous and irresponsible.
Listening to Musk talking in this presentation, you can clearly see the word of the week is speculation. There seems to be very little substance to many of the claims he makes, or any foundation at all for his ideas for the next steps of Neuralink. It’s akin to watching a 12-year-old boy excitedly explaining to his friends in the playground how he’s going to invent a robot that could do all of his chores for him, it has an atmosphere of innocent ambition.
Unfortunately for Musk, innocent ambition is not enough for a man worth 19.6 billion US dollars. Innocent ambition is not worth endangering human lives to satisfy the half-baked pipe dream of one of the worlds most popular billionaires. Musk, by even considering human testing on such a ropey premise, is not only needlessly endangering human lives, he is also in danger of undermining the very careful, evidence-based scientific process that he claims to so vehemently stand for.
Words by Olly Singleton