You may have heard that Elon Musk wants to embed tiny brain computers so humans can keep pace with the advances being made in the field of artificial intelligence.
He's building technology to allow humans to access more of their brain function.
Futurists like Ray Kurzweil have been talking about this for decades. He calls it the singularity, the point when humans and machines finally merge. By 2029 he figures computers will have "human level intelligence" and the technology will exist to make convergence inevitable.
Before you dismiss all of this as quackery, you should know previous Kurzweil predictions have been uncanny. In his 1990 book, The Age of Intelligent Machines, he predicted the internet would become the defining consumer technology of our generation. Considering CompuServe and Prodigy together accounted for little more than 1 million users at the time, that seemed like crazy talk.
For good measure, he also predicted the rise of mobile phones, fax machines and even the fall of the Soviet Union. Later books said we should expect supercomputers in the cloud and nano robots capable of performing the most delicate medical procedures.
All of these things came true.
Musk says his technology will be ready for implants within a year. The immediate target market is persons who have become paralyzed. Our sensory and motor functions are controlled by a series of electrochemical spikes in the brain. As neurons fire across our synapses they send complex commands to our eyes, ears and limbs. Musk and his team at Neuralink want to build a brain machine interface to interpret and control those commands.
And it's not nearly as far-fetched as seems.
The basic technology already exists. Dr. Richard Norman, a professor of bioengineering at the University of Utah, in 1997, developed the Utah electrode array. The tiny piece of silicon, only a quarter of an inch on its side, has 256 electrodes that can be attached to the central nervous system to listen to neural activity.
Patients fitted with the device have been able to communicate on computers using only their mind.
Researchers at Neuralink began by developing ultra-thin electrodes called threads. At only 10 to 40 microns in width, threads are less than the thickness of a human hair. They are small enough to penetrate brain tissue without puncturing blood vessels, and they can be packed more tightly on silicon. Researchers say finished chips will have 1,000 threads and a single application might have as many as 10 chips.
If patients using the Utah array can communicate on computers with their brains using only 256 electrodes, imagine what is possible with 10,000.
Neuralink is also developing a medical robot to perform the implant procedure with precision. The sewing machine-like device is supposed to be minimally invasive because only a small hole is required given the small size of the threads and chips. In the future, Musk says the procedure will be no more invasive than getting Lasik eye surgery.
The other bit of hardware is a Bluetooth receiver that will connect to an implant located behind the patient's ear. The wearable wireless device will house a battery, get software upgrades over the air, and will also connect to a smartphone for training.
Musk has some interesting mandatory requirements for the device. These suggest his long range goals may stretch beyond helping disabled people. The Neuralink must be completely wireless, have years to decades of lifetime, practical bandwidth and be suitable for at home use.
In the past, he has said he sees the evolution of cybernetics as a defensive measure. Artificially intelligent machines learning at exponential rates, in his view, pose grave risk to humans. Ultimately they will be given tasks with tricky moral choices that involve human life. It's not Terminator, but it's close.
Hawking explained his concerns during an online forum. He spoke about intelligent machines developed to run a hydroelectric project. Given their core competency, would those machines choose to flood lands for the betterment of the project despite the existence of large colonies of anthills? Hawking concluded the machines do not flood the land because they hate ants. They choose to flood because it's within their core competency.
Now, imagine humans as ants.
Musk believes the answer is an implant designed to use the full capacity of our brains. It's not as crazy as the headlines make it seem.
To learn more about Jon Markman's recommendations at the crossroads of culture and technology, check out his daily investment newsletter Strategic Advantage. To learn about Markman's practical research in the short-term timing of market indexes and commodities, check out his daily newsletter Invariant Futures.
The author of this column owns shares in Stryker and Microsoft.