We honestly live in the SciFi future. Watching the unveiling and live discussion from Elon Musk’s Neuralink project left me inspired and frightened at the potential of this new advancement with equal measure. It raises deep questions about what it means to be human as we move the interface between the corporate cloud and our personal lives directly into the brain itself.
We have happily signed over our privacy (often unwittingly, though no less eagerly) to data miners for the sake of convenient access to the world of information sharing, entertainment and social media and every hybrid inbetween. But as that interface becomes a permanent physical insertion, via bluetooth, we will be connecting, collating and storing not only our thought patterns, but every electrical and chemical pattern we produce. Intentionally, sub consciously and as a nervous response to daily stimuli.
How long will it be before we are happy to dissolve all barriers between our unconscious and subconscious behaviour and the platforms that many of us already inhabit with freakish regularity? How long before we allow the ads that appear every four posts on Facebook, directly into our brains? And how will that feel? Having ads popping up much like any other uninvited thoughts we might have? Except tailored to our exact biological and neurological needs? Or tailored to trick us into the needs we are encouraged to desire.
There is no doubt that the intended potential of this technology, to relieve people of some of the worst burdens imaginable, from tetraplegia to chronic mental illnesses to extreme pain relief to blindness would be astonishing. And a future is foreseeable where, access to tailor-made cocktails of chemicals, vitamins and minerals, custom-made to keep us feeling healthy and happy could be available in some pre-packaged, digital, delivery system, in our homes, or even out on the go. Our very own portable diagnostic and delivery module, able to mix these medicines—and maybe even reacreational substances—for us out of base chemical batches purchased online. It is really is not as far fetched as it seems. And who would want to deny the suffering access to such measures?
But as humanity’s last private frontier goes live on-line, is there any doubt that attempts won’t be made to manipulate and pacify people via the misappropriation of this technology? Will the equivalent of China’s social credit system be taken to new levels of direct invasiveness and pervasiveness? Will prisoners be given mandatory “rectification” before reintegration with society? Using mass data sweeps to identify precursors to recidvism. Will the new crimes predicted by Orwell and Huxley and Philip K Dick be met with attempts at pre-emptive control? This talk is no longer fantasy. Musk is currently bank-rolling the bridge over these troubled philosophical and technological waters of science fiction, and we are going to struggle as a species not to burn that bridge down behind us.
That this generation stands at the cusp of the end of humanity as we have known it, can be said without the faintest hint of hyperbole. The drastic perceived consequences of anthropogenic climate change aside, we are talking about nothing less than movement towards a cyborg normality.
Just think of the rapidity with which the world has adopted the internet and smart phones, not only as a means of communicating with each other, but as a means of communicating with our daily objects. How far are we willing to take our mental and biological entanglement with technology? And once it becomes affordable, how much will you even think about it before you opt in? Will it be a mad rush just like it is for a new I-Phone? People lining up in malls every year or so to get an upgraded Neuralink? Given current trends, it does not sound far fetched at all.
Ask yourself, how will you respond? As this technology develops, will you adopt it? Will you embrace the idea of never having to even look at your phone when you want to ask Google how the world works? Or translate something while you are travelling? Will you embrace, for instance, those closest to you—or even perhaps complete strangers in an internal online dating scenario—having access to your mind and body via bluetooth, wifi and satellite array? How will you feel attaching your personal Neuralink, or which ever particular brand you become loyal to, to a charger every night as you sleep? Induction charger stuck to your head with a magnet, and no doubt in your favourite colour. Will you be able to resist?
And how will you feel as the battery wears down towards the end of the day? A time perhaps, you might have set aside for making love, or reading, that now feels strange as your connection to the online world wanes, a connection that has not existed at any other time in history. That now gives you anxiety at the thought of being disconnected. The parallels with our current—some would argue abusive—relationship to social media is obvious. But, it is our current world, just with physical tentacles inserted into your cerebral cortex.
And if the monopolistaion of the online world, with a handful of tech giants handling the traffic of the entire world’s interactions continues, how will that feel inside your head? A future set to resemble more of an “inline” world, where external stimuli is not as neccessary for the processing of sensory information. Where your social media feed could invoke not only imagery and sound, but potentially scents and physical sensations, all taking place within your neurological framework. Where people’s instagram feed is not a photo, but their actual experience, translated into binary language, and replicated in your brain, and therefore in your body. When David Attenborough goes to Antarctica, you smell salt and feel wind chills. Where you think your questions directly to Google. Where you search for porn and are able to recieve real sensory commands to satisfy your idiosyncratic desires. Where you trust an algorithm to connect you to prospective lovers or hookups or future spouses. And where somewhere, someone, has all of this information stored, and marked for sale to advertisers, who aim to sell you more of what they want you to want.
Taking our current paradigm as the stepping off point, it is plain to see that this entire process can only be facilitated in the same way it is now. Where all of these transactions will be stored as meta-data, albeit encrypted, and the channels through which your thoughts and desires are communicated and fulfilled, are monetised. Who will be in charge of that process? And how will the subsequent addiction and compulsive behaviour play out in our physical bodies, in our communities and in the economy? It will be “now”, on highly individualised steroids.
And we haven’t even discussed the role of government in this. They are currently at loggerheads over people’s rights to encryption with the tech giants actually defending people’s privacy from data-hungry state actors and institutions like the Australian government and ASIO. But there is also the other trajectory we are on, with the rise and rise of monster corporations with no physical boundaries, and private wealthy individuals funding innovation in these sectors and purchasing the rights to act as they please and essentially run parts of the public sector via proxy through lobbying and a revolving-door culture of corruption.
Elon Musk, as a mega-wealthy individual is a slippery character in this regard. One can appreciate that he is infatuated with his own ideas and many cany relate to him being in love with the idea of merging humanity and technology. He is not the worst billionaire in the world, but that is a very low bar, and he is still a major risk to democratic process.
The outsourcing of social programs to big tech and the reliance on the wealth of private individuals and their corporate outlets in times of crisis leaves the world in a precarious position. Instead of having social capital, derived from the taxation of these oligarchs and their assets, available to fund as social enterprises the kind of health-care technologies Musk is pursuing, we end up at the mercy of their grace and can only hope they help us out when we are in need.
The Neuralink project purports to be in this vein of public service from the private sector. But the advances they are pursuing will have immense repercussions for us all. Because Elon Musk is not alone. He shares that fetish for a technological singularity with a broad sector of our modern globalised world. So while these efforts are currently aimed primarily at healing damaged bodies, they are also explicitly intended for much broader applications, and to be as ubiquitous as the smart phone, with some of those applications, no doubt, being somewhat nefarious.
But, in this climate of conspiracy theories, I think it’s worth noting that I don’t think elon Musk is a part of some cabal aiming to have us all under remote mind control with all of our behaviours monitored via a “fitbit in the head” (to blend Musk’s description and Rage Against The Machine’s metaphor for the televised nightly news), but in many ways his intentions are irrelevant. It doesn’t matter who invented the rifle for instance, or whether it was intended originally for hunting or sport, or to be converted into the kind of high powered weapons of war we know today. Technology is a human endeavour, and patented or not, once the ideas are out there, the potential for humanity to do its best and worst with it is practically inevitable.
Without a doubt though, with the unveiling of the Neuralink, it looks like 2020 has struck again. This year continues to live up to its reputation as an historical pivot point. Around which the world is thrust headlong into a vastly different future, much like an instellar object bending at speed around the gravity of some enormous cosmic body, only to be ejected via slingshot into the depths of space. Preferably we will be on a charted course, but we all know that is too much to ask.
Either way, the future is here, so we better start deciding on some boundaries, and do our best to plot the trajectory, lest we are flung tumbling into the worst of our tendencies via our briiliant monkey minds and our unwavering dedication and pursuit of ideas at all costs.