A Silicon future. New startups aim to connect brain and machine.

The Wall Street Journal reported last March that Elon Musk is backing up a neuroscience tech called Neuralink that has the modest aim to enhance the human brain by connecting it to a computer. The Silicon Valley billionaire and CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, has been discussing the “neural lace” concept since 2016 as means to make humans keep pace with the exponentially accelerated development of artificial intelligence (AI). In the ReCode conference of 2016, Musk told the captivated audience that, assuming any rate of AI advancement, humans will be left behind, and even in the most favorable outcome end up as “a house cat” to AI.
Story by: Néstor Vázquez Bernat

But Musk is not the first Bay Area entrepreneur interested in brain-computer interactions. Bryan Johnson, founder of the paying service company Braintree (sold to PayPal for $800M), has funded his own brain-computer startup, Kernel. “If humanity were to identify a singular thing to work on, the thing that would demand the greatest minds of our generation, it’s human intelligence,” Johnson recently told The Verge magazine, “specifically, the ability to co-evolve with artificial intelligence.”

Assuming any rate of AI advancement, humans will be left behind

This futuristic attempt at brain-computer integration by Silicon Valley startups has been received with skepticism from some neuroscientists. Blake Richards, assistant professor in neuroscience at the University of Toronto, commented in The Verge that he did not believe that healthy individuals would agree to highly invasive surgeries for enhancements. He also pointed out that our knowledge of how the brain functions is still limited.   

The race for a better understanding of the human brain began with the discovery of electrical activity in the brain by Hans Berger, a German neurologist, in 1924. In the 1970s, when scientists detected impulses from neurons that allowed for direct communication of the brain with a machine, Jacques J. Vidal, electrical engineer at UCLA, coined the concept of a Brain-Computer Interface (BCI). Since then research on BCI and neuroprosthetics has mainly focused on helping people with impaired motor activity, hearing, vision or severe psychological disorders.

Both Silicon Valley startups understand that in order to create advanced BCI, they first have to gain a better understanding of the brain functions and improve current technologies by helping individuals with specific neurological dysfunctions. Brain implants have already been successfully applied in Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy and to restore movement after spinal cord injury. According to the National Institute of Deafness, over 300,000 people worldwide have received a cochlear implant. Meanwhile other – more complex – BCI are already underway.

If humanity was to identify a singular thing to work on, it’s human intelligence

This new era of BCI that seems to lie ahead of us will also have to deal with complex ethical issues, since human enhancement has the potential to irreversibly affect what it means to be human. The capacity to enhance people’s physical or mental capabilities could lead to serious socio-economical fractures, as illustrated in the movie Gattaca, which portraits a futuristic society where individuals that cannot afford genetic enhancement are excluded. Furthermore, concepts that currently belong to the realm of science fiction like mind-reading, mind-control or even mind-hacking could suddenly become a threatening reality if complex BCI were to materialize. In our pursuit of scientific knowledge and human improvement we have to be careful not to accidentally lose control of our last shred of individual privacy – our mind.

Human enhancement has the potential to irreversible affect what it means to be human

Despite the many difficulties and ethical considerations, there is something undeniably fresh in the approach that the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs take into academic fields. One may wonder if in these times of disbelief in science and massive cuts in research funding venture capitalists like Musk and Johnson with “hearts of gold” could help take us to the next step in human “evolution”.

This article was previously published in Medicor 2017 #2
Proofread by: Isabelle Wemar

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