Thanks, Elon, for making us cyborgs
If we merge humans with machines, the result will be less than human
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The announcement this week that Elon Musk’s Neuralink had succeeded in implanting the first-ever computer chip in a live human brain represents the latest reminder that yesterday’s science fiction is rapidly becoming reality, with ethical implications we have barely begun to grasp. For readers of C.S. Lewis, this development might call to mind the plot of his dystopian masterpiece, That Hideous Strength, in which the scientists hell-bent on reconditioning society succeed in re-animating the brain of a dead scientist named Alcasan—or so they think. In reality, it is demons who are speaking through the dead man’s head, using the illusion of scientific progress to delude and destroy humanity.
Before jumping to such dark conclusions, though, we should ask: Are Neuralink’s ambitions really that sinister? After all, Musk has insisted that in the near-term, their goal for the project is medical—to enable paralyzed patients or those suffering from muscular degeneration once again to interact with their environment. Neuralink’s chip, already successfully tested on monkeys, is designed to read signals from the neurons of the motor cortex (i.e., your thoughts about how you want to move a hand or foot) and translate those signals into movements of a computer mouse or strokes of a keyboard. As such, does it not simply represent the next generation, as it were, of the machine that allows Stephen Hawking to speak?
In themselves, such aspirations are not wrong. But we should be clear what they are. They are not medicine in the traditional sense, whose task, ideally, is to heal the human body—enabling it to return to its proper functioning. In some cases, where medicine cannot do so, it devises work-arounds that can simulate the lost functions, such as a prosthetic leg. Such supplements can be helpful, but they are fraught with risk. Often, what begins as a supplement for a small subset of the population is then generalized as an easy technological substitute for all. Consider the trajectory of IVF, which began as a “treatment” for infertility but is now being employed by those who’d just rather not have their own babies, or who would like to genetically enhance them.
In fact, Musk has been open about the fact that Neuralink harbors broader ambitions. Why shouldn’t we use implanted brain chips to allow a more seamless interaction between men and machines? Neuralink’s goal is to offer a product called Telepathy, which “enables control of your phone or computer, and through them almost any device, just by thinking.” The connection is also meant to be a two-way street. Not only will the chips feed my thoughts to a computer, but they will be able to feed the computer directly into my thoughts. Who doesn’t want to read their Facebook feed without even picking up their phone?
Well, presumably a lot of people. We are already grappling with the debilitating effects that the smartphone revolution has had on mental health, effects achieved in large part by lowering the barrier between thinking and acting. Where a generation ago I had to get up, walk to my desktop, and wait for dial-up internet to connect before browsing pages or composing a message, now I just have to pull my phone out of my pocket. Now, there is little time for judgment to intervene before impulse and action. It is simply too easy to consume pornographic imagery or tweet an angry rant. What Neuralink promises is a world in which I’ll simply have to think about a video to play it in my mind, in which I can think up a sarcastic retort and send it without even the friction of thumbs.
Such a world, however, is not one that empowers thought, but one that abolishes it. For the delay and effort involved in the boundary between mind and world is the prerequisite of true thought, just as friction is the pre-requisite of effective motion. Consider: Although too much friction would keep my car from driving at all, a world without friction would be one in which neither brakes nor steering wheels had any effect. Just so, effortless thinking would not be human thought at all, and effortless action would no longer be human action. Indeed, this is precisely Musk’s dream, a world in which humans merge with machines so that the entire universe of knowledge is available in the blink of an eye: “The long-term aspiration with Neuralink,” he declared, “would be to achieve a symbiosis with artificial intelligence.”
Musk promises us a world without friction, a world in which anything I want to know, I can know almost before I have realized I want it, in which anything I want to do, is done as soon as I form the thought. But in such a world, will the word “I” still have meaning? The abolition of friction, of the stubborn barrier between mind and world, may just turn out to threaten the abolition of man.
These daily articles have become part of my steady diet. —BarbaraSign up to receive the WORLD Opinions email newsletter each weekday for sound commentary from trusted voices.