Elon Musk’s Neuralink received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to conduct human clinical trials last week, which a former FDA official called “a really big deal.” . I don’t disagree, but I’m skeptical that this technology can “change everything.” Not all profound technological advances have broad social and economic implications.
With Neuralink’s device, a robot surgically inserts a device into the brain that can then decode some of the brain activity and connect the brain signals to computers and other machines. A person paralyzed from the neck down, for example, could use the interface to manipulate their physical environment, as well as to write and communicate.
This would indeed be a major breakthrough – for people suffering from paralysis or head injuries. For others, I’m not so sure. For the sake of argument, since there are many companies working in this area, let’s assume that this technology works as advertised. Who exactly will want to use it?
One fear is that brain-machine connections are expensive and only the rich can afford them. These people will become a new class of “super-thinkers,” ruling over us with their superior intelligence.
I don’t think this scenario is likely. If I was offered $100 million for a permanent brain-computer connection, I wouldn’t take it, if only for fear of side effects and possible neurological damage. And I would like to be sure that the control link goes from me to the computer, not the other way around.
Additionally, there are other ways to increase my intelligence through computers, including recent innovations in AI. It’s true that I can think faster than I can speak or write, but I’m just not in much of a hurry. I would rather learn to type on my phone as fast as a teenager.
A related vision of direct brain-computer interface is that computers will be able to quickly inject useful knowledge into our brains. Imagine going to bed, turning on your brain machine, and waking up knowing Chinese. This seems incredible – but if it were possible, so would all kinds of other scenarios, not all of them benign, in which a computer can modify or control our brains.
I also consider this scenario far-fetched – unlike using your brain to manipulate objects, this seems like real science fiction. Current technologies read brain signals but do not control them.
Another vision for this technology is that computer owners will want to “rent” the capabilities of the human brain, much like companies rent space in the cloud today. Software does not perform well in certain skills, such as identifying unacceptable speech or images. In this scenario, connected brains come largely from low-wage workers, just as social media companies and OpenAI have used low-wage labor in Kenya to gauge production quality or to help make content decisions.
These investments could be useful in increasing the salaries of these people. Many observers might object, however, that a new, more insidious class distinction will have been created – between those who must connect to machines to earn a living and those who do not.
Are there scenarios in which higher-paid workers would like to be connected to the machine? Wouldn’t it be useful for a spy or corporate negotiator to receive real-time computer intelligence while making decisions? Would professional sport allow such brain-computer interfaces? They could be useful in telling a baseball player when to swing and when not to.
The more I think about these options, the more skeptical I become about the widespread use of brain-computer interfaces for people without disabilities. Artificial intelligence is progressing at an incredible pace and requires no intrusion into our bodies, much less our brains. There are still earplugs and a future version of Google Glass.
The main advantage of the direct brain-computer interface appears to be speed. But extreme speed is only important in a limited class of circumstances, many of which are zero-sum competitions and endeavors, like sports and games.
Of course, companies like Neuralink could prove me wrong. But for now, I continue to rely on artificial intelligence and large language models, which are just inches away from me as I write this.
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