Brain implants or other types of neural links, such as Brain Computer Interfaces (BCIs) between the brain, the internet, and the cloud, are quickly entering the realm of science rather than science fiction.
The Defense Advanced Research Agency is ready to run trials with closed-loop mood control chips linked to AI that can deliver an electrical impulse to regulate a soldier’s mood. In the private sector, Elon Musk has announced Neuralink — a neurotechnology venture that will not only focus on fighting diseases but also on augmenting humans so they can better compete with machines.
The technology is advancing in campuses and government-backed labs around the world, attracting serious funding from established technology players, technology institutes, and top universities. For instance, Professor Newton Howard of Oxford University has produced a functional neural implant prototype by combining some of the brightest minds at MIT, Oxford, and Georgetown, and the resources and technical know-how of Intel and Qualcomm.
All of this begs the question: Is the world ready for this kind of human enhancement, and is it a worthy idea to pursue in the first place? Well, I for one wouldn’t be standing in line waiting for my brain implant, as it would take away too much of what makes me who I am.
The ‘promises’ of a bio-enhanced future
The introduction of brain implants that we normal people could buy at the mall will open a Pandora’s box of possibilities. It’s one of those technological leaps that makes you wonder if our future is going to be heaven or hell (#Hellven). This is something that I spend a lot of time thinking about, and have written extensively about in articles and for my book.
I know it might sound like a cliché, but many of the potential “upgrades to human” will probably end up downgrading our lives in terms of health and happiness. While we might gain certain superpowers, we would also lose many attributes that define us as human beings.
How could we retain non-algorithmic-generated characteristics such as serendipity, surprise, mystery, and even free will in a world dominated by super-intelligent machines connected directly to our mind? Wouldn’t a constant connection to a cloud with virtually limitless computing capacity lead to total dependency, to a radical loss of human autonomy, and ultimately, to the total dehumanization of society?
Granted, pretty much everybody would want superhuman powers, and many of us would do almost anything to become god-like cyborgs. If humanity were asked to choose, this would for many seem a no-brainer.
Here’s the argument that probably most of use will be faced with:
“You are using a smartphone, right? You are using Google Maps. You own a notebook. So why not use a brain-computer-interface or a neurolace — the same thing, but more efficient and without the hassle of having any external device!”
But here’s where this logic goes wrong: Fundamentally messing with who we are as humans, redesigning our biology and our chemistry and transcending the limitations of our minds and hearts is a different cup of tea than using external devices to extend our abilities in basic ways — like finding a faster way to a location.
As the philosopher and futurist Marshall McLuhan said repeatedly, every extension of man is also an amputation of man’s capability somewhere else. While small amputations such as using Google Translate rather than translating words ourselves may be acceptable to most, quintessentially human attributes such as giving birth should not be amputated — regardless of what some technologists suggest.
We need to ask ourselves what we want to be in the future. This is the most important question facing us as we enter an age of unlimited possibilities, which we will see in our own lifetime. Because independent of what we choose, there will be profound consequences.
Will this decision be truly and solely ours to make?
What I’m worried about the most — and what you need to consider as well — is whether we’ll even have an actual choice to “opt out” if BCIs are implemented. Assuming that the benefits of these technologies are so plentiful, will we be able to find a good job without a BCI? Will we be able to opt out without becoming useless, like someone who insists on banging away on a typewriter or sending telegrams instead of using a computer?
Neural implants’ exponential impact on learning and cognitive ability will pressure people to start using them at a very young age, which will naturally translate into parents having to make this decision for their children. So the question becomes: How far would you go to give your child an edge? Will it be just a matter of principles, or also a financial decision, that will lead to even more inequality? This would generate lifelong differences in productivity, wages and opportunity, dividing society from birth into two classes — the upgraded and those left behind.
When will we get to the point where society is faced with such a radical new course? It will not come without a serious debate and a fight, of course. The anti-vaccine movement has shown that even the slightest risk or the rarest malfunction can become a stick with which those opposed to neural implants could use to bludgeon proponents.
Similarly, implants may, over time, overcome most of the ethical issues and become the norm in mainstream society — and even lead to legislation that facilitates and legitimizes their use. AI will then work its way into every part of our life and someday we won’t be able to function without it, losing our independence and a lot of what makes us human.
But worry not, this won’t happen overnight.
Today, more questions are being posed than answered. The reason is that before an age of acceptance, there needs to be an age of discussion to sort out ethical and moral issues. We need to raise questions, issue warnings and keep a close watch on advances in this nascent technology before we agree to a buy-in, and before we lose our right to decide.
The technological argument for BCIs will need to be watertight, based on years of research and a track record of improving society, before the ethical concerns of such a revolutionary development can begin to fade. Before we jump on an unstoppable bandwagon, we also need to offer opt-outs to those unwilling to hop on. Alternatives to BCIs could include boundaries added to the technology, such as an underage prohibition, and even anti-discrimination protections for those who choose not to embrace the movement.
The technology is already here. Human nature means it could be decades or more before everyone is offered that choice. But it’s coming. It won’t happen soon, or without a fight. But that still doesn’t mean we shouldn’t prepare for it.
Nicholas Borsotto Machado Monteiro contributed to this story. He is the lead economist and researcher of the Good Technology Collective.