VIDEO: Elon Musk's Next Quest Is A Mind-Machine Meld. Let's Consider The Implications

Dec 3, 2019
Originally published on December 3, 2019 10:06 am

Don't see the video? Click here.

We're ever-more reliant on our devices, whether it's mobile phones or voice-powered home assistants, such as Amazon Echo.

If today's science continues apace, the future of humanity will likely include further symbiosis with technology. Tech entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk are going all-in on brain-machine interfaces; you saw it with Musk's company, Neuralink's announcement about plans for brain chip implants.

But is a more direct connection between our brains and our technology something we want? What are the possibilities and the pitfalls? In this Future You with Elise Hu, tech entrepreneur Bryan Johnson, founder of neural interface company Kernel (a Musk competitor), and technology ethicist Tristan Harris talk about what brain-machine interfaces can offer — and the ethical considerations to make in designing the future you.

Future You's first season is dedicated to the human body and what it will be able to do in 2050. You can find the latest episodes on YouTube or npr.org/futureyou. And send us your ideas about upgrading humans by email at futureyou@npr.org or through Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Elon Musk, the co-founder of Tesla, is known for these audacious business plans that grab a whole lot of attention. Right? He's been getting a lot of attention lately for unveiling a new electric pickup truck that's been dubbed the Cybertruck. Well, a few months ago, he was hawking another one of his companies called Neuralink. He said the company's goal is to stitch computer wires - he called them threads - straight into human brains.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELON MUSK: This, I think, has a very good purpose, which is to cure important diseases and ultimately to help secure humanity's future.

GREENE: OK - high expectations there. Now, if you're wondering about curing diseases by connecting our brains to computers and whether this is possible, you would not be alone. But Musk's company is part of a fledgling industry that is trying to make this the wave of the future.

And NPR's Elise Hu has been reporting on this in her series we call Future You. Hi, Elise.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: All right. So this is the final report in your series, and you've been looking at ethical questions raised by businesses that are promoting this brain-computer interface. And we should say, Musk is not the only one who's spending a whole lot of money on this kind of thing.

HU: No, he's not. Mark Zuckerberg from Facebook is another one. Then there's a guy named Bryan Johnson; he's a billionaire who founded the backbone to the payment system Venmo. And these tech moguls - and others - believe that if you can unlock the mysteries of our minds, then computers would be better able to read them and then better work inside them.

GREENE: OK. So what case are all these people making for why this is a good investment?

HU: I interviewed Bryan Johnson, whose company is working on this. It is called Kernel, and he's just as expansive as Elon Musk - or maybe even more so - in his vision of solving every problem known to humanity.

BRYAN JOHNSON: If we are to address climate change, the risk of pandemics, of wars, terrorism, of mental illness, of everything we care to solve in the world, there's one thing they all have in common - our minds. My hope is that when we build tools with Kernel and that we can begin evolving our cognition - that if we do that, it's the fastest possible path to addressing every other problem we care about.

HU: And Kernel is starting with a non-invasive cap - so a way to do this without stitching anything into our heads. But this is big talk. It envisions that everyone would be connected to computers at some point in the future and kind of rewiring ourselves to solve humanity's problems.

GREENE: I mean, I love dreaming big - obviously. But I mean, this is a huge leap. I mean, we don't even know if these devices are going to work like they say they're going to work. And I would assume there'd be some regulatory stuff that would have to happen before we can actually be used. Right?

HU: Right. And right now we're discussing a lot of the ethical questions here. And I've been looking at whether this kind of thing works at all over the course of this series. I've tried on a couple devices to connect with other machines; I moved two different robots just by thinking about it. So in this reporting, I have seen that science, and it's been making tremendous leaps forward.

GREENE: But I also like that you've really boiled this down to one very important question, which is - should we even be trying to upgrade ourselves, upgrade people with computers?

HU: And that's a key question. And I spoke with the tech ethicist Tristan Harris, who used to be at Google. He went on to found a thing called the Center for Humane Technology. And he told me about some of the things he worries about, beginning with the fact that, at this moment in history, you might say that many of us have been cognitively downgraded by our technology because we are so addicted to and distracted by our phones. And those aren't even connected to our bodies.

TRISTAN HARRIS: What got us into the present situation where our attention spans are 40 seconds on any computer screen? What got us there wasn't - let's make our attention spans short. What got us there is - let's give ourselves superpowers. And we didn't know ourselves well enough that when we gave ourselves superpowers, we debased our way of making attention.

HU: Tristan Harris says we need to assess where we are now before we introduce the kind of mind-computer connections that some of these entrepreneurs are talking about.

HARRIS: If we don't even have a balance sheet of - these are the harms - and we're just eager to just race into the future and get to that future milestone, this is why - it's not about focusing on the present so much as it's about understanding carefully, like, where is this good and where is it in control and where is it happening with wisdom when we're making technology?

HU: Just some of the considerations as this brain-machine interface industry becomes, by one estimate, a multibillion-dollar industry over the next few years.

GREENE: All right. Elise's series Future You, with Elise Hu wraps up with an animated episode on neuro ethics and the future. You can catch it on npr.org and also on NPR's YouTube channel. Elise, I just want to say I'm going to miss this series. Thanks so much for all the great stuff.

HU: Me, too. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.