Elon Musk’s neural lace vs. life as an AI’s pet cat

Neuralink, the latest project to emerge from Elon Musk’s fevered imagination, could have been ripped straight from the pages of any cyberpunk novel. It’s a brain‒computer interface, or ‘neural lace’ in the official Musk terminology — a kind of hyper-advanced internet browser for cybernauts. Why do we need this? According to Musk, we’re in danger of being outpaced by intelligent machines; to keep up we’ll need to get our cyborg on — a classic case of ‘if you can’t beat the robots, become one.’

At a recent event in Dubai, Musk said, ‘Over time I think we will probably see a closer merger of biological intelligence and digital intelligence,’ adding that: ‘It’s mostly a matter of bandwidth, the speed of the connection between your brain and the digital version of yourself, particularly output.’

He also expressed his fear that if we fail to augment our capabilities by merging with machines we risk becoming ‘house cats’ to artificial intelligence — which, to be honest, doesn’t sound all that bad. I mean cats live a pretty charmed life after all. They doze all day, come and go as they please, and never have to worry where their next meal is coming from. If that’s what life under the machines will be like, I say bring on the scratching posts.

Brain‒computer interfaces have actually been around for a while. They’ve helped to restore motor control in paralyzed patients, and allowed people with locked-in syndrome to communicate. However, they’re not as advanced as Musk’s neural lace idea (which is more of a concept than a working device), though you’d probably still need surgery to install some sort of sensor in your brain — at which point most people will quite rightly say ‘sod that for a game of soldiers. I’ll stick with my smartphone, ta very much.’

But while the neural lace is disturbing in a Black Mirror way, it does have more than a hint of inevitability about it. Step outside your front door and you’ll likely bump (quite literally) into countless people with their heads bowed over their phones, as if praying to some demanding digital God.

Although it’s a relatively new phenomenon we’ve already learned to accept that people now exist in two places at once. We seem them strolling down the street while scrolling through their twitter feed, or riding the underground while ogling YouTube, and we wonder what’s so interesting — because it definitely ain’t us. So in a way, we’ve already merged our minds with machines.

Musk nodded to this phenomenon when he stated: “We’re already cyborgs. Your phone and your computer are extensions of you, but the interface is through finger movements or speech, which are very slow.”

Current interfaces also restrict our ability to interact with the physical world, which, in some cases, can prove fatal. Hence why Google thought it was onto a winner with Glass, the augmented reality glasses that allow the wearer to simultaneously keep an eye on both the physical and digital world. Unfortunately, however, most people hated the idea that some uber-geek might be secretly recording them, and Project Glass is now likely to end up in Google’s equivalent of the secret warehouse from the Indiana Jones movies.

That won’t stop Google or another tech company from having another crack at popularising augmented reality glasses, the next step on the road to a brain‒computer interface. In fact, Apple is rumoured to be working on just such a device. But once we merge with machines there’s no guarantee we’ll remain the dominate the partner in the relationship. Or perhaps, like our feline friends, we’ll simply let the robots think they’re in charge.

Duncan Jefferies writes about tech and digital culture for the Guardian, How We Get To Next and other publications. You can follow him on Twitter, and find out more about him on his website.

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