This week we discovered that Elon Musk is behind a new start-up called Neuralink, which is trying to extract power from the human brain to interact with technology around us. It’s another salvo in the ongoing yet tumultuous relationship that Musk has had with artificial intelligence and the future of mankind.
Musk has been one of the most vocal and concerned voices when it comes to artificial intelligence. He once famously said that AI is “potentially more dangerous than nukes” in how it could upend work and society. While it’s easy to make some Terminator joke about our future, Musk’s concerns are grounded in reality; it’s simply a case of when and how fast we will get there.
One need only look at the likes of Google’s DeepMind, which it acquired in 2014. Its AlphaGo program famously beat a human at Go and the company is now also examining medical data in the UK. Musk was an investor in the company at its nascent stages in order to, in his words, “keep an eye on what’s going on with artificial intelligence”.
Plenty disagree with Musk. Humans will not be wiped out or made obsolete, they say, as much like previous generations during periods of huge change like the industrial revolution, humans will adapt. AI will replace jobs but humans will create new ones that complement that.
Nevertheless, the advancements of AI constantly raise major questions around how it will impact work, lifestyles, government, and contentious issues like warfare.
So why then has Musk started Neuralink? On the surface it appears to run counter to Musk’s stance on the whole area but, much like DeepMind, that might be the very reason he’s doing it.
Neuralink, according to the reports we have so far, is officially registered as a medical research organization and is primarily looking at how the brain can be linked to technology without the use of an interface. To accomplish this, the researchers would implant electrodes in test subjects’ brains. Through this research, Neuralink could investigate conditions like epilepsy and depression and the company has supposedly partnered with several academics. In the long term the research could be used to augment the human brain.
Musk is one of the most influential people in technology today. Whether you like him or not, the fact is that when he talks, a lot of people listen. It’s why his concerns over AI gained traction in the first place. By placing himself in the middle of AI, he may very well be trying to use this stature and influence to steer AI, at least partially, towards a future that he thinks is better.
Anyway, it’s not like Musk is averse to the idea of human and machine merging in some way. At the World Government Summit in Dubai in February he floated the idea of transhumanism—using technology to augment the person—which is exactly what Neuralink could do.
“Over time I think we will probably see a closer merger of biological intelligence and digital intelligence,” he said. “It’s mostly about the bandwidth, the speed of the connection between your brain and the digital version of yourself, particularly output.”
He said this was necessary to ensure that humans maintain their place at the top of the food chain and let’s not forget Tesla’s interests in the ongoing march toward autonomous vehicles, so we really shouldn’t be surprised at all by Neuralink and what it’s trying to do.
The serial entrepreneur also co-founded OpenAI, a non-profit, in 2015 along with Peter Thiel, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, Y Combinator president Sam Altam, and several others. Unsurprisingly the organization’s motives revolve around “safe artificial intelligence”.
Musk has donated millions of his money to an organization called Future of Life Institute. The Boston-based NGO funds research into bettering human life and living conditions for a future that is becoming increasingly defined by AI and automation. Following donations from Musk in 2015, Future of Life granted $2 million to 37 researchers and institutions to ensure that AI will “remain safe and beneficial”.
Recipients of these grants have included researchers from universities like Harvard, Carnegie Mellon, Oxford, and Cambridge who have all examined matters like regulation, ethics in AI, and security.
Musk’s intentions appear noble, but also raise the questions around what is “safe”. Who decides what is “safe”? Research into ethical AI continues but we still don’t have a clear grasp on what exactly the ethical use of AI would look like. Many might agree that safe AI means preserving jobs in vulnerable sectors or using AI to treat diseases—but what else?
Neuralink now adds to a growing web of companies and interests of Musk. The PayPal co-founder is of course most known for Tesla and SpaceX but also his ties to Hyperloop, the ultra-ambitious high speed transport network that’s been inking a lot of agreements lately. He was an early investor in payments giant Stripe, now valued at $9 billion. Then he’s also chairman of SolarCity and runs the Musk Foundation with his brother Kimbal. The man has his fingers in so many pies that he’s exerting some kind of influence over several major innovations and sectors, AI is just the latest.