Neuralink: Suggestions Are Not Enough

Elon Musk’s idea and science. Why haven’t other discoveries elicited the same interest?

In the 1980s, an indestructible car shot from the streets of America onto our television screens. Created to combat crime and controlled by an artificial intelligence system, KITT, the acronym for Knight Industries Two Thousand, had amazing abilities to analyze, critique and predict. It was a car comparable to a human being, with its own consciousness, a life companion to its owner. In those analog times, the 2000s were the futuristic goal for a human-machine symbiosis, with technology as a friendly, intelligent ally. KITT represented that potential for harmony, pointing toward an inevitable total integration. It was in this vein that the epic visionary “Whole Earth Catalog” was created in California at the end of the 1960s, containing a dynamic and public selection of hundreds of tools and books related to humanity, with detailed descriptions of features, pictures, prices and suppliers, all available by mail order. More than just a publication, it was a call to self-sufficiency and a connection with the planet, reflecting the aspirations of a generation that wanted to redefine the world. The catalog was a symbol of the democratization of knowledge, a theme that would echo through the technological progress of the following decades.

This impulse was channeled into Silicon Valley, epicenter of the technology revolution, in the race for personal computing. Bill Gates’ vision of a computer on every desk and Steve Jobs’ blend of innovation and art molded the future, turning technology into a fundamental part of daily life. Meanwhile, the journey toward ever increasing integration continued. The internet, originally created for academic and military uses, was transformed into the digital backbone of the planet, erasing geographic barriers and redefining the concept of communication. The transformation of shopping into a seamless virtual experience soon followed, auguring a world in which consumers’ needs would be anticipated and met with an almost magical precision. The smartphone quickly became the accelerator toward the digital universe, the gateway to a seemingly endless and perpetually available cosmos of information. Technology had become the indispensable extension of ourselves. The direct, immediate and continuous interactions it provides have altered the relationship between ourselves, time and events, interweaving the boundaries between knowledge and information to the point of blurring their respective meanings and roles.

It is in this context that Elon Musk’s Neuralink arrives, or rather its story because this is what it has been about up to now. With its image of being able to change things completely, quickly and effortlessly, Neuralink has caught the attention of the markets, attracting more than $320 million in venture capital. These funds secure cash from financial institutions, banking and insurance foundations, public authorities and pension funds that wish to diversify their investments into projects that are high-risk but hold potentially astronomical returns. An opportunity that is impossible for most academic research institutions. With U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval, Neuralink has implanted a system of electrodes in a person’s brain in order to connect it to the outside world. The details are unclear, but the news has spread like wildfire, grabbing the attention of social networks. It was enough to hear that something magical was happening, that the ill were being cured and that the healthy were interfacing with the environment so intensely as to become one with it. Brains that communicate with each other. A world without boundaries, intermediaries, and barriers toward a new authentic freedom. KITT without needing a car. The internet without a physical support system. A collective emotion that surges, surfing the waves of information, not so much distant from, as unaware of, knowledge. The wake is ever increasing.

Extraordinary demonstrations of the potency of the brain-computer interface have already been described in the world’s most prestigious scientific journals. Scientists from the University of San Francisco have restored communication speed and expression using a system that sends signals from the surface of the brain to an avatar powered by artificial intelligence, which trains itself while the person who has lost the ability to speak due to a stroke thinks in sentences. The system reproduces around 80 words a minute; speaking with a friend, we use few more than 100. The Swiss scientists behind NeuroRestore have developed a system that allows a person paralyzed with a spinal cord injury to control their walking by means of thought. These discoveries, the result of years of research shared with the scientific community, were released to the public through social channels using the same simple words that Musk did. And yet, they did not trigger a similar wave of emotion nor similar market interest. We need to ask ourselves why. Musk cryptically referred to “promising neuron spike detection.” Mesmerized by the story, we don’t need questions. The answers are in the faith of the markets. Proffering the dream of an absolute, mystical humanity is emblematic, greater than the objective of treatment, far from Max Weber’s critique that science offers neither salvation nor prophets. It doesn’t need them because they aren’t intended for science. It is a betrayal of the Whole Earth Catalog’s vision, which, while a little bit hippie, was rooted in the idea that humanity should nourish itself with knowledge, not suggestions.

About this publication

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply