The future The Jetsons promised is here: meal replacement shakes, robots, and jet packs.
OK, the jetpacks part is debatable. Jetpacks exist, but today’s jetpacks are neither practical nor as commercially available as other advanced modes of modern transportation, such as Segway’s or Sketcher’s velcro roller sneakers.
Into this disappointing future comes Boy Wonder Elon Musk – famous for his SpaceX rockets, Tesla electric cars, and fighting the City of Los Angeles to build his Hyperloop – with a new invention up his sleeve. It’s what Musk is calling the Brain-Machine Interface (BMI).
The project is driven by a company called Neuralink, a startup company of Musk’s, which is building a “scalable high-bandwidth BMI system[s]” that claims to enable your brain to “stream full broadband electrophysiology data” to a network. As if we didn’t already watch enough Netflix or TV?
The idea is more representative of something from The Matrix then the relatively tame utopian future forecasted by the world of George and Jane Jetson with its sassy robot nannies and apple pies in a pill.
For Musk’s technology to work, a neurosurgical robot first sews a “combination of ultra-fine polymer probes” into your head. Then your brain is connected to the Neuralink system with a “single USB-C cable that provides full-bandwidth data streaming from the device.” What could go wrong?
Elon Musk says he wants to use this technology to connect the entire human race together via a “neural network” to make the world a better place, which if you think sounds awfully similar to the Silicon Valley lip-service utopianism of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg – you’re right – who has succeeded in connecting the world and in making the world immeasurably worse for it.
With Musk’s brain interface technology, people will communicate through images and emotions rather than words. Also known as cable news.
And finally, here’s the kicker: Musk says that Neuralink could even allow you to let other people on the Neuralink network control your motor functions. What’s unaddressed and inevitable is that hackers will attack or a virus will corrupt the system.
Whether its a couple of sparks or a total brain meltdown, possible side effects may include jogging against your will. The first act of Neuralink murder may very well be when a Moldovan crime syndicate hacks a victim and force-feds them the entire contents of their refrigerator.
What happens when Mr. Musk’s digital brain “network” gets hacked? Or when one of the network members click on a suspicious link in a spam email (not again, Larry!) and unleash a ransomware virus.
Will you be forced to have your designated power of attorney pay a ransom to cybercriminals in order to regain your consciousness? The possibilities for hijinks are endless. Some hackers will simply want to create mischief and alter your brain chemistry so that you acquire a really bad taste for sweaters.
Thankfully the reality of Elon Musk’s fever dream isn’t here yet. Musk may claim that Neuralink will connect the world or that you will be able to learn Spanish or Particle Physics in 30 seconds of less, but the fact is that there are physical obstacles preventing the realization of this futuristic vision.
But if we take Neuralink seriously (and we should, to some degree, given Elon Musk’s track record for making the impossible possible) there are enormous consequences to getting things wrong, from potential brain damage to worldwide mayhem.
Advocates for Neuralink hope that in the next 50 years we will see mass adoption of the technology, enabling access to a worldwide “hive mind” library of information and empowering people to communicate without speaking (you know, like teenagers do with emojis).
Users will also be able to sense their internet-connected household appliances as easily as if they were on their bodies. Why? Because we can. It is doubtful whether anyone besides Elon Musk and his cyberspace friends wants to be that intimate with their toaster.
Don’t we have enough information overload already? Do we really need to beam more messages into our brains, never mind plug them into a USB port?
The impact of this technology on politics is predictable: populists will decry the tech as “Musk’s Brain Plug” and film themselves smashing the tyrannical devices. Candidates for office will claim their opponents are Manchurian candidates under the control of foreign powers like Russia or radical groups like the Koch Brothers. The Democrats are ahead of the curve on that one.
Regardless, it doesn’t seem wise to let a device such as Neuralink hijack our brain and nervous system. That’s important equipment of ours. Plus, what happens when Neuralink’s servers crash in the middle of your daily system update, your brain gets scrambled, and you end up color-blind and speaking Swahili?
You’ll probably have to file a claim and take a ticket. Meanwhile, the kids need to get to soccer practice. Customer service will try to fix the situation sometime in the next two weeks.
In 1984, English author George Orwell’s infamous dystopian book, Orwell never mentions anything about electronic chips in our heads. Probably because he figured that was too obvious and we’d all smarten up before we let corporations or governments put broadband hooks in our heads.