We’re Already Cyborgs

It has taken me a few weeks to get through Tim Urban’s mind-bending (pun intended) and meaty write-up of Elon Musk’s new company, Neuralink. While I still have one section left to read, it’s already the single most important text I’ve read this year and will likely stay that way for the foreseeable future. I strongly encourage you to take the time to process it and wrap your mind around the possibilities of a world with Brain-Machine Interfaces, if for no other reason than to better understand where we’ve come from as a species and reinvigorate your passion for science. To say I’ve had an existential crisis dramatically understates the outcome I have had reading about Neuralink. Indeed, my life has changed forever.

It’s impossible now to imagine life when we can share thoughts and experiences with each other on demand, directly, and in full cognitive fidelity as if we were experiencing them ourselves. A world where language becomes obsolete and our thoughts become our means to communicate. It’s so difficult to imagine this that it’s no surprise to me on second thought that mainstream science fiction to date barely scratches the surface of this topic. Many modern fictions like telepathy and telekinesis become largely possible with this one innovation alone (trust me, just read the article).

When you think about it for more than a minute, scary consequences for this technology emerge. Tim Urban points out some genuinely terrifying fears and does a better job than I could illustrating them. That acknowledged, Tim channels Elon Musk to point out that we’re already on our way:

“The thing that people, I think, don’t appreciate right now is that they are already a cyborg. You’re already a different creature than you would have been twenty years ago, or even ten years ago. You’re already a different creature. You can see this when they do surveys of like, “how long do you want to be away from your phone?” and — particularly if you’re a teenager or in your 20s — even a day hurts. If you leave your phone behind, it’s like missing limb syndrome. I think people — they’re already kind of merged with their phone and their laptop and their applications and everything.”

If you think about it, what difference is there really between a hands-free Bluetooth headset seated outside your ear and a speaker inside your head? With the speaker implanted, you will go hands-free indefinitely and never need to lift anything to your ear again. Indeed, anyone with a cochlear implant already has a measure of this experience.

Wearables were not adopted half as fervently as I thought they might, though smart watches offer very little more today than what smartphones already do. Voice assistants, on the other hand, have caught on like wildfire, due largely — from my experience using them — to their hands-free utility. Speaking is quicker and more nuanced than typing with keyboards. After all, we had tens or hundreds of thousands of years developing speech long before the written word. Smart speakers are still far from perfect and offer limited features, but machine learning continues to improve these experiences every day and Google at least regularly announces expanded features for Google Assistant. But speaking to our machines is only the beginning. Elon paints a picture for how limiting language can be:

“There are a bunch of concepts in your head that then your brain has to try to compress into this incredibly low data rate called speech or typing. That’s what language is, your brain has executed a compression algorithm on thought, on concept transfer.”

Elon calls language data transfer “lossy.” Why compress ideas into language when we can simply share thoughts directly? It will no doubt make logical, convenient, and competitive sense to continue upgrading ourselves from primitive, low-bandwidth, chatty and lossy semi-cyborgs to modern, high-bandwidth, full resolution, lossless cyborgs. Only a matter of time. We would be fools to opt out lest we opt out entirely from society.

Contrast this inevitably with Bill Maher’s eloquent rant comparing social media to the new nicotine:

“Philip Morris just wanted your lungs. The app store wants your soul.”

In many ways, Silicon Valley already lives inside our heads. And we let them. The FDA would never allow nicotine delivery devices we can implant in our brains. But what about Brain-Machine Interfaces? Having our cell phones and Facebook and Google and Skype and all information in the world ever in our heads? Without question, the human race is not responsible enough for this yet and we have a long way to go.

It will take me a lifetime to process this revolution, but a few takeaways showed up right out of the gate. Notably, that it’s never too early to have conversations about how we want our future to look. Without stifling innovation, we should get ahead on defining what we all feel are acceptable uses of technology and proactively legislate according to these values. For that matter, it behooves us to start re-evaluating systems entirely with BMI technology in mind. What will government, the economy, education, entertainment, and religion look like when we all can read anyone’s (and anything’s) mind anywhere anytime? Everything will change. Pending breakthroughs in implantation and bandwidth, our grandchildren may be the ones to bear the brunt of transition to this new reality.