Neuralink: An Inevitable Trend in Computing?
This is the second part of a two part series sparked by the Neuralink summer update in late August. Part 1 covered the technology and science which is key to understand before thinking of the implications of the technology as this article explores.
I just want to point out that this article is not a typical article where I try to explain and share interesting information in an intuitive way. This article/essay is an attempt to organize my raw thoughts and more importantly the questions that arose after learning about Neuralink and neurotechnology more broadly.
I would also like to point out that Neuralink is not the only company in the neurotechnology space, but it does significantly benefit from the Elon Musk hype. Here are a couple of equally interesting companies in the space: Kernel, Brainco, Emotiv and Neurable.
To many, Neuralink is seen as something that is a completely different technology, one that is so dangerous due to it being inside our body. Having our body and especially our mind changed by technology seems like a very scary thought. While this is 100% true, a good look back at the evolution of computing seems to indicate that computers within the body may just be the next step in the greater trend of personal computing.
When the first computer called the ENIAC was built in the 1940s, it took up about 1,800. Due to the sheer size of these very early computers, they often were only found in research facilities for purely research purposes (with early applications in the military). The impact of these technologies on people’s day to day lives was very minimal. It was just seen as a powerful tool to help them make new discoveries and do math problems more efficiently.
Early Personal Computers
Things started to change with the advent of personal computers in the mid 1970s and early 1980s. This is when computers went from simply a research machine to something more than that. Although relatively few people had access to a personal computer, it was starting to integrate into their personal lives. At this point, computers would tell early adopters of personal computers useful information about the world around them and allow people to write up and store some basic information.
In the following two decades leading up to the early 2000s, personal computers became more and more powerful and could be found at most office desks. Computers in the form of mobile phones also emerged. The small size of the phone meant that it was easy to carry around and carry out a few basic tasks apart from just calling. The capabilities of the mobile phone has greatly improved the invention of smartphones, which leads us to today where smartphones can be used to do all kinds of tasks.
Since this evolution from large room-sized computers to things we carry in our pockets was quite slow (more than 50 years), it may seem like this is just the natural evolution. However, there was a key transformation that happened, computing became extremely personal. We now carry smartphones with us at all times. Most of us feel uncomfortable leaving our house without our phones. What if I get lost? I won’t have Google Maps to save me. What if I want to buy something? I won’t have my phone to just tap and pay. What if someone messages me? I won’t be able to see or reply.
Nowadays, computing is getting even more personal with the rise of wearable technology. This includes smart watches, fitness trackers, and many other devices. These wearables can be seen as technology on the skin.
Human to Computer Distance
What does this whole rant on computing evolution have to do with Neuralink and brain chips? Well, if you have been paying a bit of attention to the overall trend of computing you may have noticed the human to computer distance has been constantly decreasing.
In the early days, computers were in research facilities, we can say that the mean human to computer distance was about 5 km (distance from home). With personal computers, it moved to 5m or so (distance to another room in the house). With smartphones, it became about 5 mm (in pocket). With wearables, the distance is becoming closer to 5 mm/1000. With brain chips, the distance will finally diminish to zero.
The real final barrier for technology today is the human skin. We may wear smartwatches and carry smartphones in pockets so close to our skin, we have never really had technology under our skin. This is the very discrete barrier that brain chips are trying to bring down.
So the interesting aspect of Neuralink is their end of neural engineering. The example that the Neuralink engineers gave was having a “Brain API.” As a developer, this immediately started making more sense. Instead of programming a computer to do tasks and monitoring what computers are doing, we would be doing the same things with our brain. We would be able to monitor all neural activity and also program certain things onto our computer.
The Exciting Future
This programmatic method of thinking of our brain can be very exciting. We can almost think of the brain as the operating system with us being able to make apps for the brain operating system. As a developer, I can already imagine so many cool uses of a brain api - playing video games using your brain as input, being able to call your car to the front of the store using your brain and the possibilities are endless. Neuralink has already hinted at a couple of applications like texting using your brain which would be a part of a Neuralink app on your smartphone.
With Elon being cautious of the radio advancement in AI technology, the end goal for Neuralink is to merge the human brain with artificial intelligence. Is this the ultimate version of ‘if you can't beat them, join them’?
On the flip side, having a brain API can be quite scary when you consider the implications of it. For example, if we compare our brain to a traditional API hosted on servers which help bring the web together, we can only imagine what happens if someone hacks the brain API. What does it mean that someone hacked “you” by hacking your mind and by extension your body, memories, thoughts, etc?
This shift in perspective in seeing life as a purely biological phenomenon to an engineering problem of sorts will likely have very important implications down the line. There are also huge ethical implications surrounding the perspective where the human and body are treated as a complex engineering problem like how we treat other engineering marvels?
While we know quite a bit about the human body (or at least we think we do), relatively we know very little about the human mind from a scientific perspective. With AI research progressing, I have been quite curious regarding the debate of human cognition. We still can’t pin point to a specific part of the brain or any part of our biological body and declare that as our consciousness.
What does it mean to be conscious? With the progress of neural technology like Neuralink, could we finally arrive at a point to a part of our body and identify that as the very core of our being? Will we be able to point out certain thoughts and memories within our brain? At such a point, would our brain simply turn into a mathematical function - changes in neuron x results in y thought or z action in the physical world?
If such a breakthrough is made, I think it would likely lead to the creation of artificial intelligence. One of the fundamental problems with the creation of artificial (general) intelligence is that us humans cannot fully comprehend what it means to be human and intelligent. If humans understand what it means to be intelligent and consciousness could consciousness be replicated or engineered?
Other Random Questions
- If there is an EMP of sorts, will we all just die because of neuralink malfunction? Merging of man and machine?
- Should a company in theory have the power to literally control you?
- Is the shift to cyborgs seeming more and more a reality? Are we already cyborgs as people 100 years would have thought?