Recently, Founder Elon Musk's Neuralink released a video of a primate implanted with futuristic technology enabling the animal to play a game of "Pong" with thoughts, alone. "A monkey is literally playing a video game telepathically using a brain chip!" tweeted Elon Musk, to the roaring cheer of his fans.
However, this test drew skepticism from scientists and lovers of tech — arguing that his technology isn't new. The initial comparable demo happened in 2002, when a group of researchers helped a monkey move a cursor on a computer screen in line with its thoughts via decoding activity from a few dozen neurons in the monkey's motor cortex into a detectable signal. This isn't very different from Elon Musk's Neuralink video.
Combined with the mounting concerns about private social media companies monitoring and selling our alternative engagement data to third parties for profit, some are worried Musk's Neuralink technology could herald a dark new day, where users' privacy, data ownership, and biomedical ethics might be transgressed and sold to anyone Musk pleases, leaving us with little to do but look on Neuralink's profits, and despair. But, are neuroscience and brain-computer interfaces really moving as fast as the Neuralink hype suggests?
Neuralink draws the concern of scientists and tech enthusiasts
"I doubt we will have accurate, mind-reading consumer devices in the near future," said Professor Anna Wexler of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania, in an op-ed for STAT. "[N]euroscience is far from understanding how the mind works — much less having the ability to decode it."
However, it's hard to deny the impressive advancements Neuralink has brought to the table. "In principle, the idea of a monkey (or a human) controlling a cursor is not new," added Wexler. "But the Neuralink demo does appear to show significant technical advances, particularly in terms of the wireless system and a number of electrodes that seem to have been successfully implanted," said Wexler in a report from the Observer. Mirroring the expectations of the researchers from the early-2000s experiment, Musk believes implantable brain chips might enable people with serious neurological disorders to grab hold of their lives again — and maybe even merge human and machine intelligence to give birth to a new, cyborg-like superbeing. If this sounds unrealistic, consider yourself exempt from those of the SpaceX and Tesla CEO's 50 million social media followers who seem convinced by hype despite the nascent nature of computer-brain interfaces.
And if this worries you, you're in the company of concerned tech ethicists.
The danger of mind-reading computers can be overstated
"What concerns me in the near-term are the potentially false claims," added Wexler. "Neuralink's employees are scientists and engineers working on developing what appears to be a legitimate device for medical purposes. Yet, the company's co-founder is fond of making grandiose and bombastic claims about the potential for that same technology to cure all diseases and allow humans to merge with AI."
Even if Musk's Neuralink achieves a major tech breakthrough, we still have to confront the complicated social implications of a device capable of reading minds. "While I'm excited about the therapeutic applications of brain chips for those with movement and memory problems, I worry about the widespread use of brain chips in the future," wrote cognitive psychologist and philosopher Susan Schneider to the Observer in an email. "Without proper regulations, your innermost thoughts and biometric data could be sold to the highest bidder. People may feel compelled to use brain chips to stay employed in a future in which AI outmodes us in the workplace."
Two years ago, Schneider said Elon Musk's vision of merging human brains and computers constituted a dystopian future that would mean "suicide for the human mind." Additionally, testing of Neuralink-like invasive tech on animals has drawn heavy criticism from environmental groups like the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). But with few substantial advancements since the initial brain-computer interface test on Monkeys decades ago, sometime "in the future" might overestimate how close Musk is — or anyone, really — to truly bringing a concept like Neuralink to its promised potential.