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Ever since Elon Musk announced his acquisition of Neuralink in March 2017, the news has been awash with criticism and commentaries on human computer interfaces.
Perhaps the most widely shared of these is the (excruciatingly long) Wait But Why article that broke the Neuralink news. In the article, Tim Urban explains in minute detail how the technology will work. If you haven’t had the pleasure yet, you can read ‘Neuralink and the Brain’s Magical Future’ here.
The concept of human computer interfaces isn’t entirely new, though the Elon Musk news has driven it into the mainstream. Acclaimed futurist and transhumanist guru, Ray Kurzweil, has been championing human-machine symbiosis for much of his career, predicting that “the nonbiological portion of our intelligence will predominate” by the 2030s. He anticipates the full-blown Singularity by 2045. It is only fairly recently, however, that companies like Neuralink (and even Facebook) have started declaring that the technology may well be within our sights.
Presuming that this really is the case (Noam Chomsky reckons it’s impossible), we must begin to ask ourselves whether the merging of humans with technology is actually a good idea.
Clearly, humankind hasn’t been doing such a good job of things here on Earth recently. If we can become vastly more intelligent through human computer interfaces, perhaps we could do much better. If integrating ourselves with technology allows us to more accurately assess the consequences of our actions, then maybe a brighter future is ahead.
Why Human Computer Interfaces?
The reason that Elon Musk has decided to invest in neural lacing is linked to his concerns about the threat of artificial superintelligence – the Singularity that Kurzweil is convinced will be upon us in less than 20 years. This is a concern shared by many of the most prominent minds in science, including Stephen Hawking, who has also warned that the Singularity could be the greatest threat facing humankind.
Musk argues that human computer interfaces are our best chance of surviving the superintelligence explosion. In a kind of ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ move, Musk sees our greatest chance lying in our ability to merge ourselves with those superintelligent machines. If we can do this, we remain capable of competing with machines on intelligence, retain more control over them, and thus improve our chances of survival by symbiosis.
If going bionic is an unnerving thought to you, then that’s really only natural. Such a vast alteration to how we live is bound to be a terrifying prospect, just as it was at the dawn of the first Industrial Revolution.
If the human computer interface is what will save us from our demise at the hands of the machine, we must necessarily overcome our squeamishness about letting machines into our bodies. The squeamishness itself can be argued to be a primitive concern, one that must be moved beyond if we are to survive.
It is, certainly, a drastic solution to a problem we’re not altogether sure will even arrive. Nonetheless, we could consider it to be an unprecedented step: the point at which a species becomes so advanced that they can enact their own evolution.
Evolution, historically, has always been a natural process enacted over thousands and millions of years. When the environment fails to be sufficiently nurturing, changes begin to occur over generations to enable a species to better adapt to that environment. Those which cannot adapt die.
Technology, too, has been a slow evolutionary process, which arguably began from the time the first ape used the first rock to smash the first nut. A gradual process of evolution over millennia, leading us to the point at which we transcend biology, metamorphosing into our next form: a hybrid species of our own creation, imbued with far superior intelligence to our predecessors. A species thus capable of strengthening ourselves, of barricading death outside the door, moving on to colonise the universe: the ultimate lifeform.
Survival of the Richest?
The question remains, however, as to who will have access to the technology. Presumably, at least initially, it will be an expensive process and thus only available to the wealthy. So the rich become smarter, and an uneducated underclass of comparatively useless, stupid billions will emerge.
The only hope for the 99% is that this newly intelligent elite decide that it is better for the human race to be unanimously improved. Alternatively, it’s a simple case of survival of the fittest – those with the resources to survive. This, of course, is just one ethical consideration that needs to be raised. It’s a return to the old Doctor Strangelove question: who is fit enough for the nuclear bunker?
The question of how long we have to answer this and other questions posed by the issue is controversial. Whilst Kurzweil and others predict a very short window before artificial superintelligence arrives, others insist that we are nowhere near artificially superintelligent machines nor functional human computer interfaces. Whilst the lack of a definitive answer may lead many to dismiss the issue outright, the smarter decision, of course, is to prepare ourselves so that we are ready if and when the time comes.