A Tale of Two Brains

On Elon Musk and Derren Brown

Recently Elon Musk told us about Neuralink, his new company whose goal is “to change the fundamental nature of human communication forever” by facilitating “consensual telepathy” between people.

Initially the technology will be used to help people with brain injuries, but ultimately the goal is communication from one brain to another: “You could actually do an uncompressed direct conceptual communication with another person.”

Why would we want such a thing? “It’s mostly about the bandwidth, the speed of the connection between your brain and the digital version of yourself.”

So Neuralink is to do with keeping up with technology and efficiency — cutting out the “low data” problem of speech.

There are two problems here that I would hope someone at Neuralink is thinking about.

  1. How will the unconscious affect “direct” communication between people?
  2. How will the absence of speech, and the time it takes to listen, process, formulate thoughts, and respond, interfere with the ability to think critically, which requires a gap of time and space between communicating subjects?

Derren Brown, the extraordinary illusionist whose show Secret just opened to excellent reviews in New York, helps illustrate the dangers that Neuralink potentially poses. While Derren has asked audience members to maintain his show’s secrets, I think it is fair to say that at the core of Derren’s act is the apparent “reduction” of the normal distance between one mind and another.

Let me give just one example, which I’ll try to keep vague. At one point in his show, Derren needs to find audience members who are particularly susceptible to hypnosis. To achieve this, he creates a visual mood and affective tone that at least for some audience members appears to allow a more primitive, less rational part of their minds to emerge.

On one level this is harmless, as at the end of the day, it’s just a magic show and we are all there to have fun. But looked at from another angle, Derren’s show is evidence of just how trusting, submissive, and compliant the human subject potentially is. Of course we know this from the horrors of history, and most of us have witnessed the kind of mob behavior that René Girard spent so much of his life investigating.

But the introduction of technology designed to “skip past” parts of our minds — and culture — raises the stakes. If we fall under the spell of a charismatic leader or the magnetic pull of the mob, at least we can “wake up” from our hypnosis. What happens if technology enables a frictionless manipulation that permanently negates our ability to locate, and think from, a critical distance?

Secret avoids horrifying us because it takes care even as it seduces us: Derren doesn’t want to truly control or manipulate us, he just wants to show us what our minds are capable of. In fact, he warns us against charisma, is more or less honest with us about what he’s doing, and seems self-aware enough to avoid any impulses to misuse his abilities.

But what happens when the person communicating directly into our minds has no such care for us, and isn’t self-aware about his potentially violent unconscious?

It is not surprising that a powerful person like Elon Musk does not appear to be concerned with power relations. And someone with an ego as strong as his may not be attuned to the sometimes destructive logic of an uncontrollable unconscious. But at least he must be aware of our significant gaps in knowledge about the brain. This alone should give him pause.

Even were we to know “everything” about the brain, the intersubjective reality of human existence has little to do with biology and physiology. As great artists have always known, human reality is not about transparent meanings and passionless exchanges of data. Reality is about the ways we make meaning — the twisted ideological paths desire leads us down, and the seductive rationalizations that support a violence we can’t perceive. We still read Sophocles and Shakespeare hundreds of years after they wrote their plays because human subjectivity doesn’t change the same way human technology does.

Elon Musk is to be praised for his efforts to expand what we are capable of. But he’d do well to keep in mind the timeless truths that define the human — which will be with us no matter how much like the machines we create we become.