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Neuralink & the Merge.
It sounds like a 90s indie band.
I came across this term, “The Merge” while visiting Sam Altman’s (CEO of OpenAI, [which he co-founded with Elon Musk] blog. Yonder, Mr. Altman describes a scenario in which humans have melty-melded with information technology. This entails pumping tech directly into one’s noggin, over-intimately combining wetware [human biology] and information technology hardware [y’know, the stuff that gets hacked and breaks early and often]. Smooshing ‘em together like peanut butter & jelly [and bananas & bacon, if that’s your thing].
A mysterious, Merge-enabling technology that has been half-in-the-shadows over the past couple of years is Neuralink. Neuralink was kind of like Sasquatch or the Loch Ness Monster … you might have caught glimpses of something out in the wild, but weren’t entirely sure what you saw. The only deep dive on Neuralink came from Tim Urban’s 2017 article over at Wait But Why. It’s a long read, but as with Urban’s other stuff, totally worth the time investment. Even given that, there was still considerable mystique surrounding Neuralink.
Then, on the night of July 16, Elon Musk finally let us peer through a small gap in the Neuralink curtain.
Neuralink is a Brain Computer Interface in which up to 10,000 ultra-fine wires / threads [each roughly the size of a neuron] can be inserted into the human brain. Those threads are connected to a chip, which in turn connects to other devices, allowing people who are afflicted with brain or spinal disorders / injuries to interface with mobile phones, keyboards, etc. Additionally, Neuralink may be able to help those with Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s. All of this is truly fantastic … on these fronts, this is a tremendously beneficial technology.
Once broad, commercial adoption is in stride, there may be a friendly neighborhood Neuralink clinic, or maybe something like a ‘surgical food truck’ [the demand for this tech will supposedly be high, so keep your eyes peeled for franchising opportunities, kids.] You’d sidle on in and ask for your skull shunt of chip-wirey goodness. Sounds like, early days, implanting the Neuralink apparatus will require drilling an old-fashioned hole in your brainpan, through which the threads will be inserted and attached to the tiny chip. The next phase will be to use a laser to create said hole. I don’t get too snuggly with concepts that contain elements like “brain”, “drill”, “laser” and “hole”. When laser-boring is taking place and you think you smell someone’s lunch, don’t ask “what’s cooking?” You’re smelling your brain. I kid. Hopefully.
Summing up: a breathtakingly Byzantine structure that has evolved over many, many millennia and is absolutely paramount to human existence will have technology that’s been around for … a lot less time … shivved into it and connected to a chip.
Fingers crossed, salt tossed.
It can leave one asking: from whence did such an idea come? Seems kind of crazy, right?
I’ve long said that science fiction is the canvas upon which the future is painted. If you can’t first imagine it, you can never invent it. We explore possibilities in fiction which then ends up in someone’s head [sometimes literally] as a “what if” and / or “hold my beer while I go build this”. It’s interesting that Musk tweeted he was reading Iain M. Banks’ Culture series in 2014 … which features individuals living in a galaxy-spanning society (“The Culture”) governed by AI. Guess what … the members of The Culture were connected to the ruling AIs/“Minds” by way of implants in their brains (“Neural Lace”). While this is a dogeared, shelf-worn trope of science fiction (especially within the cyberpunk sub-genre), this isn’t pretend-play makem-ups. This is obviously IRL tech that’s now currently in full stride toward the big and beefy metal lab doors that lead to the outside world.
What’s the purpose of this newfangled technology that’s intended to lie nestled warm and moist inside so many interconnected craniums? To what end?
Clearly, in the short term the technology will provide benefit in a medical context. Then, per Musk in the July 16 presentation: “Ultimately, we can do a full brain machine interface. This is going to sound pretty weird. Ultimately we can achieve a symbiosis with artificial intelligence. This is not a mandatory thing, this is something you can choose to have if you want. This is going to be really important at a civilization-level scale. Even in a benign AI scenario, we will be left behind. With a high-bandwidth brain machine interface we can go along for the ride and have the option of merging with AI.”
So, that’s the end zone. Comforting that it’s “not a mandatory thing” and an “option”.
On September 8 of last year, Musk appeared on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast. [The juicy bits regarding AI are at the 13:15 mark]. In that interview, Musk said [regarding the rise of AI], “It could be terrible, and it could be great … it’s not clear. One thing that’s for sure, we will not control it … the merge scenario with AI is probably the best … if you can’t beat it, join it.”
Given that, Musk doesn’t believe we can control AI through Neuralink. I agree … that would be like slapping a steering wheel on a mechanical bull. Neuralink would provide us with the capability to “go along for the ride”. From my perspective, this doesn’t seem much like a “symbiosis”, given the staggering, nonintuitive power an AI will have beyond human capability. Rather, this seems akin to tethering oneself “Defiant Ones” style to a schizophrenic, meth-fueled gorilla. You don’t really know how things are going to go down, but odds are you’re going to be painfully Jackson-Pollack’d onto every nearby surface in very short order.
Pardon the expression, but being wired as I am I tend to look down the board a tad and consider where this might be headed. Heads up: spoiler … looks sketchy.
Points of concern:
* While there are other extant brain implant technologies, I don’t think any of their representatives have ever stated their long game was to achieve symbiosis with AI demigods. Or telepathy.
* On that note … apparently, a distant goal is for Neuralink to enable telepathy-esque communication between users. Full disclosure: I’m uncomfortable with the inner workings of my own mind. Not sure I want to open up that particular hospital gown to the world at large. Trust me, you won’t like what you see … eyes forward and keep movin’. How about you? Do you want that ability, or for others to have that ability? Clearly, this data would be logged / recorded … where and for what use?
* Furthermore, regarding interfacing … AIs are vast in capability and non-intuitive, far beyond a human’s capacity or comprehension. So … what, exactly, will the User Interface ‘look’ or ‘feel’ like? Can you turn it off? How? Maybe that’s a problem for Black & Decker to help solve.
* Helping people is obviously noble and good. No debate, there … but my dark and shadowy mind wonders … does “helping people” grease the chute toward gaining FDA approval which will help with the broader commercial launch of Neuralink?
* Musk is using SpaceX (some of whose rockets have been named using the same style/convention as seen in Banks’ Culture series) to launch his own satellite internet network, called Starlink. Not to go all Fox Mulder on you, but maybe – just maybe – Neuralink could afford users direct connection to Starlink with exclusive access to enhanced features and content. This internet access would be worldwide, 24/7 and pipelining right into your cranium. How does one “unplug” or “go dark” in that scenario? Are privacy issues in play, here?
* What are the security issues surrounding Neuralink? If a smartphone, car, refrigerator, pacemaker, insulin pump, etc. can be hacked, why not mobile technology in your brain? Neuralink is useless unless it can interact with the world at large, which means the big-bad world can interact back (sometimes in thorny, prickly ways). What happens when you can physically be infected with a digital virus?
* Speaking of which, would such signals moving to-and-fro through the brain and skull cause potential health issues? We all know that cell phones are harmless (ahem), but would this tech, being threaded throughout our grey matter be something to regard with reservation?
Regardless of risk, I believe this technology is inevitable. Why? Because humans are breathtakingly short-sighted and highly prone to making bad decisions, to wit: inventing something that kicks us down at least one level on the food chain. Case in point: 1.) We’ve created a monstrously complex, data-intensive, interconnected global environment we can’t fully grasp or manage; 2.) we build tools that allow us to do so, midwifing AI into existence; 3.) hey, let’s stick a wire-spider into our brains so that we can [stifles laugh] merge with the AI and go along for the ride or risk being left behind.
Bottom-line: the [highly rhetorical] question is, once this becomes commercially available, are you willing to take it into your brain? Do the rewards outweigh the risks?