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Neuralink Corporation, Elon Musk’s brain-interface technology company, gave a presentation on August 28 in which a pig fitted with implant technology was featured.
Neuralink was launched in 2017 with millions of dollars in funding and the backing of billionaire Elon Musk. The company is yet another in a line of disruptive and future-centric projects founded by Musk that are centered around changing current patterns of human existence, in this case, how humans make use of their own brains.
As with other Musk projects, however, Neuralink has not been without its critics. Concerns over the ethics of the project, of the treatment of workers and over what some see as Musk’s overly ambitious, arguably unrealistic, vision of his own companies’ potential persist.
As Neuralink eventually aims to tap into the human mind, these concerns are all the more pressing and must be addressed if the technology is to become a widespread reality.
Neuralink was founded with the stated aim of building a brain-to-machine interface that would allow the human mind to stay on-par with the ever-improving capabilities of artificial intelligence.
The company also hopes to help people overcome chronic conditions, brain conditions and more, according to Musk. The Neuralink implant is intended to fix faulty brain patterns. In one example, the implant would help return movement and limb control to those who had lost it as a result of nerve damage.
Neuralink is not the only company looking to harness the brain through technology. Facebook has also been a major investor in brain-computer interfaces and plans to develop a non-implant device that would allow an individual to use devices and type words with just their thoughts.
Neuralink is just the latest iteration of Musk’s growing vision of the future of humankind. Musk’s other projects include the electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla, the space company SpaceX and the Boring Company, Musk’s solution to modern-day traffic problems.
Musk has a reputation for proposing ambitious – some would say overly so – visions and projects that do not seem to be hindered by practical limitations.
Neuralink is no different.
Max Hodak, the president of Neuralink, said of Musk that he “has this incredible optimism” and “you have to be very careful telling him that something is impossible.”
Some academics are troubled by these projects and believe that current laws and regulations are insufficient in dealing with the new ethical questions they pose.
Marcello Ienca, a researcher at ETH Zurich, released a 2017 paper outlining four specific rights for a neurotechnology age that Neuralink and other projects seem to signal is drawing ever-nearer.
These new rights include the right to cognitive liberty, mental privacy, mental integrity and psychological continuity, all of which are new rights that Ienca believes are necessary to adopt should such technologies come to the fore in the next few years.
Ienca also warned, in comments to Vox, that “brain data is the ultimate refuge of privacy. When that goes, everything goes.” Ienca urged that steps be taken now, before brain technology such as Neuralink’s is fully advanced and commercially available, to ensure that the technology cannot be abused or mishandled.
Comments by Musk at the Neuralink presentation on August 28 may also raise some eyebrows. Musk promised that the technology would be able to accomplish a great deal, including summoning Tesla vehicles with your mind when the Neuralink is implanted.
Some neuroscience experts were less than impressed, with Newcastle University Professor Andrew Jackson saying there wasn’t “anything revolutionary in the presentation” as brain implant technology like Neuralink has existed since at least 2006, albeit in different forms.
Professor Jackson did accept that commercial and public interest in neuroscience was encouraging regardless, but was nonetheless met with a Twitter barrage by both Musk and his online supporters in the wake of his critical comments.
Neuralink has also been at the center of less ethical controversies.
The company has been the subject of significant employee turnover since its 2017 founding, with only two members from the founding team remaining at the company today.
Reports also claim that working conditions at Neuralink are less than ideal, with scientists and researchers pressed to cut corners and meet unrealistic deadlines, causing them to operate with the type of recklessness more often seen at certain tech companies, despite the sensitivity surrounding the topic of Neuralink’s work.
Rise of AI
Far from solely helping medical recovery among patients with spinal damage or brain disorders, Musk’s Neuralink is intrinsically tied to Musk’s own less-than-optimistic vision of the future of Artificial Intelligence.
Speaking at a 2014 MIT event, Musk stated that humanity should “be very careful about artificial intelligence,” claiming that the growth and improvement of AI technology is humanity’s “biggest existential threat.”
Musk is not the only public figure to highlight the threat of AI. The late physicist Stephen Hawking told journalists in 2014 that “the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race,” as intelligent AI machine-learning systems could redesign and re-imagine themselves at an ever-increasing rate, essentially getting out of humanity’s control.
For Musk, Neuralink is a means to keep humanity on an equal footing with ever-improving AI capabilities.
While the purpose of Musk’s Neuralink presentation was largely to attract talent to what is still a small team of around 100 employees, Musk, as with the rest of his ventures, has his vision firmly fixed on a far-off human future – never mind what critics and controversies may arise in the present.
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