by Fazale Rana
January 27, 2021
He needs little by way of introduction. By some accounts, he is the second richest man in the world. And through his companies Tesla and SpaceX, this entrepreneur’s vision is to change humanity’s future.
Elon Musk thinks that rocket technology will allow us to one day colonize Mars and beyond. The industrial designer also thinks that gasoline-powered automobiles will soon be likened to the steam engine, a relic of past technology, as renewable sources of energy power motorized vehicles.
Musk’s motivation to pursue future-shaping technologies is fueled by a hopeful optimism. In a speech to the National Governors Association in 2017, the innovator said, “The thing that drives me is that I want to be able to think about the future and feel good about that.”
In 2016, Musk helped found Neuralink, a company with the express goal of building a neural implant that can sync with the human brain, affording us the ability to control computers, electronic devices, and machines using only our thoughts. Neuralink’s neural implants are among the latest developments in brain-computer interface (BCI) technology.
Like many others working with BCIs, Musk and his colleagues at Neuralink have a humanitarian motivation for advancing this technology. They hope that their neural implants will soon make their way into clinical settings, providing the means to treat various debilitating diseases and injuries. They also see neural implants as representing the next generation of technological advances that provide more seamless interface between the human user and all the different electronic devices that are part of our lives. Who knows, if Neuralink is successful, maybe one day we will be able to use their implants to stream music directly into our brains.
The Threat of AI
But for Musk, there is a much greater imperative for developing BCI technologies than easing human suffering or developing futuristic technology. He is concerned that if we don’t, humanity’s existence will be in jeopardy. Musk believes that by 2025, AI (artificial intelligence) will surpass human intellectual capacity. When this happens, Musk fears that we will become like pets to the very AI systems we invented, running the risk of becoming subjects to AI overlords. In short, Musk sees AI as the greatest existential threat to humanity.
For Musk, the only way to stave off the threat from AI is to develop neural implants that augment our brain’s capacity for cognition and the storage and retrieval of information and memories. Interfacing our brains with computer hardware and software will give us superhuman intellectual capacities. It would even allow our brains to use machine-learning algorithms that will meld our minds with AI technology.
Ironically, in contrast to the optimism that fuels the work of SpaceX and Tesla, for Musk it is a pessimism about a potential future shaped by AI technology that ultimately undergirds Neuralink’s mission. Because of his vision for Neuralink’s technology, Musk has become a leading advocate for the transhumanist agenda—the idea that we should use science and technology to augment human beings beyond our natural biological limits.
It almost goes without saying that Neuralink’s pursuit generates a mixture of excitement and angst in all of us. As a Christian, it prompts me to ask a number of questions about advances in BCI technology.
- Should we use this remarkable technology for biomedical purposes?
- Should we use neural implants to create a more seamless interface between humans and electronic devices?
- Should we use BCIs to enhance our cognitive capacity?
- Should we embrace the future envisioned by Elon Musk?
- Can technology save us from existential threats?
- Can technology rescue each of us as individuals from our impending death?
But before I address these concerns, I think it would be helpful to discuss BCI technology in general, and, specifically, the design of Neuralink’s neural implants.
BCIs are electronic devices that provide an interface between the electrical activities of the user’s brain and computer and machine hardware and software. Users learn to control computer software and hardware with BCIs, directing the activity of the devices with their thoughts. Through the use of sophisticated algorithms, BCIs help extract the user’s intent from the electrical activity in their brain, establishing a collaboration between the user and the BCI.
Invasive BCIs are the most advanced form of the technology. To install these devices, biomedical researchers implant BCIs directly into the brain. This approach allows biomedical researchers to stimulate and record the average electrical activity of thousands of neurons in specific regions of the brain. Unfortunately, this capability comes with a cost. The process of inserting electrodes into the brain can damage tissue, leading to scar formation. Electrodes implanted in the brain can also trigger an immune response. And, over time, glial cells in the brain migrate to the electrodes coating them. When this happens, it leads to loss of function.
However, Neuralink’s developing neural implants may overcome many of these problems.1
The Neuralink BCI
The key to Neuralink’s technology lies in the microelectrodes they have developed. Their microelectrodes appear to be safer, longer lasting, and more biocompatible than the electrodes currently used in BCIs. The current electrodes tend to be rigid and possess a fixed geometry. Because of their rigidity, when these electrodes are implanted in the brain they often cause damage, triggering an immune reaction and causing scarring in the brain. Their rigidity and fixed geometry also constrain their access to neuronal populations, reducing the resolution of BCIs.
Neuralink’s microelectrodes consist of a flexible gold filament coated with a biocompatible polyimide polymer. Neuralink technologists have used these microelectrodes to construct a multielectrode probe that consists of an array of either 48 or 96 threads, with each thread consisting of 32 individual microelectrodes.
The thin electrodes cause minimal brain tissue displacement when inserted into the brain. Their flexibility makes their insertion into the brain easier and less traumatic to the brain tissue.
To ensure high precision insertion of their microelectrode probes into the brain, Neuralink has also developed a microsurgical robot capable of inserting 6 threads per minute, allowing each thread to be inserted into the brain with exacting microscopic precision. This process permits the BCI to be implanted into specific brain regions, while avoiding vasculature (blood vessels). This precision process minimizes bleeding in the brain from damaged blood vessels.
The design of the Neuralink implant makes it possible to construct a BCI with 3,072 individual channels (for a 96-thread microelectrode array) that can digitize and amplify the electrical activity of neurons in specific brain regions. The full bandwidth of data is streamed using a single USB cable that can wirelessly transmit data to and from the brain using bluetooth technology.
In short, the Neuralink BCI dramatically improves upon existing BCI technology by: (1) causing less damage to the brain during implantation, (2) enhancing the working life of the BCI (from weeks and months to years), (3) increasing the resolution of the BCI, allowing the recording of the electrical activity of smaller neuron populations, and (4) offering the user greater mobility and comfort by eliminating cables that would “stick out” of their head.
Many experts believe that Neuralink’s BCI technology is a significant step forward and will move BCI technology that much closer to wide scale clinical use. As a Christian it is hard not to be excited about Neuralink’s BCI technology. These devices provide reasonable hope that in the near future the pain and suffering associated with neuromuscular disease, brain and spinal cord injuries, loss of limbs, etc. will be greatly alleviated.
Yet, the same experts question if Neuralink can achieve its grand vision for neural implants. It is one thing to generate simple movements by decoding brain activity. But it is another thing altogether to extract complex mental states from the electrical activity of neurons firing in different regions of the brain.
Neuralink’s Vision: Hope or Hype?
The chief complaint of Neuralink’s critics stems from their observation that Elon Musk and the Neuralink team seem to place an inordinate amount of attention on bioengineering and fail to give enough attention to neuroscience.
These skeptics point out that an engineering approach to neural implants incorrectly views the brain as nothing more than hardware, and our thoughts, emotions, and memories as data. And, while these analogies can be helpful, critics assert, it is important to remember that the brain isn’t hardware and memory isn’t a video playing in our minds. Science journalist Adam Rogers warns that “Neuralink might be headed to a metaphor-based failure.”2
As a case in point: no one knows what the neural substrate (foundation) for thoughts actually is. This understanding is critical for more advanced applications of neural implants. It is quite possible that when people think, the electrical activity of neurons is merely an epiphenomenon. Many neuroscientists think that neuronal activity is only an indication that the person is thinking. It cannot tell us what they are thinking, feeling, or remembering.
Likewise, when it comes to memory—though scientists are beginning to understand the biochemical processes and neurophysiology connected with memory formation, storage, and retrieval—we have no clue how these processes translate into actual memories.
Compounding these concerns is the nagging problem that we don’t know what consciousness is, how it is generated, or even if it is immaterial.
Until neuroscientists solve these problems, critics assert, Neuralink has little hope of success in accomplishing their grand design.
Still, having noted these concerns, it is possible that users could be trained to issue much more complex commands to computer systems with their thoughts, even if scientists and engineers lack basic understanding about the neurological basis for thoughts and memories. As it is now, users have to be trained to use current BCI technology to control computer software and prosthetic limbs. It is also possible that the use of sophisticated machine-learning software and AI algorithms could be coupled with BCI technology to enable neural implants to decode complex mental states. In effect, this tact appears to be the one that Musk and his Neuralink collaborators are taking with their engineering-first approach.
BCIs: A Source of Hope? A Source of Salvation?
Whether or not Elon Musk and Neuralink can deliver on their vision for neural implants, the fact remains that they have produced some pretty impressive technology. This accomplishment inspires hope in many people that one day soon we will be able to routinely use BCI technology for human enhancement purposes. Perhaps Neuralink’s brain implants will allow us, one day, to integrate brains with computer systems and, in doing so, enhance our mental capabilities beyond our natural biological limits. Perhaps in the near future we will be able to seamlessly download information to our brains or upload and retrieve information, along with our thoughts and memories, to the cloud or to share information and our ideas and emotions with other BCI users. BCI technology may even make it possible for each of us to control electronic devices in remote locations throughout the world, any place that the internet can reach. Maybe one day we will even be able to link our minds together with the minds of others to work as a collective.
And, the thinking goes, if these types of enhancements can be achieved, then maybe it will soon be possible for us to upload our conscience into a machine framework, attaining a type of digital immortality.
In other words, for a growing number of people, science and technology may become the means of our “salvation”—allowing us to overcome our biological limitations, going one step further by even conquering death. Humans may achieve a type of immortality—even if it is a digital one.
These are the kinds of goals that fuel the transhumanism movement.
Using science and technology to mitigate pain and suffering and to drive human progress is nothing new. (And it is something that Christians can stand behind.) But transhumanists desire more. They maintain that humanity has a moral obligation to use advances in biotechnology and bioengineering to take control of our own evolution with the ultimate objective of creating new and improved versions of human beings and, as a result, ushering in a posthuman future.
In effect, transhumanists desire to create a utopia of our own design through science and technology. Though clothed in the language of science and technology—make no mistake—a strong religious undercurrent buoys transhumanism. In this regard, for those practicing the religion of techno faith, transhumanism serves as the source of hope, purpose, and density for each individual and humanity at large.
Provocatively, while many transhumanists see our inherent biological flaws and limitations as the ultimate existential threat humans face, Musk views the AI technology that we will soon develop as the greatest danger that we face as a species. And yet, in a type of tautological irony, Musk’s proposed solution to this technological threat involves the use of technology to modify humans so that we can compete with the AI systems we will inevitably design. Remarkably, Musk wants us to use AI technology to power the neural implants with the express purpose of enhancing our cognitive abilities so that we remain safe from the threat of AI systems.
But can the transhumanist agenda deliver on its promises?
Can Elon Musk achieve his objective?
I am skeptical for a number of reasons that my coauthor Kenneth Samples and I detail in our book Humans 2.0. One of these reasons is called the salvation paradox.
The Salvation Paradox
By pursuing Musk’s version of the transhumanist vision (with the hope that we will save ourselves from extinction by integrating our biology with computer systems fueled by AI technology), we may well usher in our own demise—the very thing that Musk seeks to avoid.
Like Musk, many transhumanists seek to save humanity by creating a posthuman world. But, in effect, if successful what we will wind up saving won’t be us. Philosopher Patrick Hopkins provides sobering analysis:
Suppose technology has changed me so much that I am no longer a member of the human species, no longer limited by any species-defining human cognitive characteristics. I have changed so much that the existence I now experience is incomprehensible to my former, limited, human self. As much as that language may sound wonderful, exciting, and liberating at first, thinking about it more in depth reveals that such a technological process offers far less to me than hoped…The end result will be some kind of successor entity to me, but it will not be me.3
So, for no other reason than the salvation paradox, the transhumanist agenda provides people with a false hope at best. In this sense, Musk’s version of transhumanism is a dangerous idea. In fact, transhumanism may well be one of the most dangerous ideas ever confronting humanity. For, if this agenda is accomplished in the way many transhumanists envision, it will likely accelerate our extinction. As theologian Brent Waters so aptly points out, “It [transhumanism] is counterfeit…because the cost of victory is the elimination of the very creatures that need to be saved. One has to destroy humankind to save human beings.”4
In short, Neuralink’s technology offers exciting biomedical applications that will mitigate much human pain and suffering. It might even open up the prospects of offering us more seamless interfacing with electronic devices. Both are worthwhile undertakings. But make no mistake, technology can never save us. It can never grant us eternal life. It should never be the source of our hope, purpose, and destiny.
- Humans 2.0: Scientific, Philosophical, and Biblical Perspectives on Transhumanism by Fazale Rana with Ken Samples (book)
- “A Christian Perspective on Living Electrodes” by Fazale Rana (article)
- “A Christian Perspective on Brain-Computer Interfaces” by Fazale Rana (article)
- “Does Transhumanism Refute Human Exceptionalism? A Response to Peter Clarke” by Fazale Rana (article)
- “Does Development of Artificial Intelligence Undermine Human Exceptionalism?” by Fazale Rana (article)
- Elon Musk and Neuralink, “Integrated Brain-Machine Interface Platform with Thousands of Channels,” BioRxiv (August 2, 2020), doi:10.1101/703801.
- Adam Rogers, “Neuralink Is Impressive Tech, Wrapped in Musk Hype,” Wired, September 4, 2020, https://www.wired.com/story/neuralink-is-impressive-tech-wrapped-in-musk-hype/.
- Patrick D. Hopkins, “A Salvation Paradox for Transhumanism: Saving You versus Saving You,” in H± Transhumanism and Its Critics, ed. by Gregory R. Hansell and William Grassie (Philadelphia, PA: Metanexus Institute, 2011), 77–78.
- Brent Waters, “Whose Salvation? Which Eschatology?” in Transhumanism and Transcendence: Christian Hope in an Age of Technological Enhancement, ed. by Ronald Cole-Turner (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2011), 173.
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