Transhumanism and Neuralink: the dawn of digitally enhanced humans

Elon Musk's Neuralink recently gained the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) approval for studying human brain implants. But is this paving the way to solving some of the biggest problems in society or creating a disturbing future for humanity?

The recent approval by the FDA surprised many. Especially considering reports that more than 1,500 animals had lost their lives during the testing phases, and the company was accused of illegally moving pathogens. Yet, despite its critics, its continuous development has the potential to eventually transform our society and challenge the way we perceive human capabilities.

Musk envisions a future where brain implants could pave the way for game-changing solutions to various conditions, including obesity, autism, depression, schizophrenia, Parkinson's, epilepsy, and beyond. He even predicts a future where web browsing using our brains and telepathy become the norm. But unfortunately, this tech is not without its controversies.

At its core, Neuralink is developing a pioneering brain-computer interface referred to as "The Link." This is essentially an implantable chip that would be surgically placed within the brain, acting as a conduit between the human mind and digital devices. Neuralink's technology bridges the gap between the brain and computers by encoding and decoding neural signals, facilitating communication with the outer digital world.

The coin-sized brain implant acts as an interface between the human brain and a computer. This device is surgically installed underneath the skull. It connects to the brain via a network of ultra-fine threads that fan out into different regions of the brain, primarily those controlling motor skills. These threads carry 3,000 electrodes attached to flexible threads, thinner than a human hair. These threads monitor the activity of 1,000 neurons. Its sensitivity and delicacy are such that a specialized neurosurgical robot developed by Neuralink is needed for their precise installation.

How does it work?

Neuralink's cutting-edge system operates through a microchip attached to slender, pliable threads. These threads are meticulously woven into the brain by a device reminiscent of a sewing machine, only significantly more advanced and specialized. This robotic gadget surgically makes a small incision into the skull, implants the ultra-fine threads into predetermined areas of the brain, and then skilfully seals the incision, leaving only a scar as evidence of its work.

The human brain is a network of unique cells known as neurons, which generate and transmit signals to other cells in the body, encompassing our muscles and nerves. Neuralink's electrodes, intricately embedded into these threads, can decipher these neuronal signals, which are converted into motor control commands. These commands can interact with external digital devices such as computers or smartphones or potentially initiate bodily functions like voluntary muscle movement.

Musk has predicted that the entire procedure would take approximately half an hour, not necessitating general anesthesia and allowing patients to be discharged the same day. Imagine replacing a skull fragment with a smartwatch, and you are on the right track. Neuralink's system represents a significant leap in neurotechnology. An external inductive charger is proposed to enable wireless charging of the implant's battery, providing a seamless and minimally invasive interface between the human brain and the digital world.

What are the benefits?

There are many unique possibilities that Neuralink could unlock. The notion of a paralyzed individual regaining their ability to interact with the world is inspiring. The ability to connect with our environment through a direct interface with our visual field could revolutionize our experience of the world. In a year dominated by generative AI, you could be forgiven for pondering how it would feel to have a second internal voice like ChatGPT, communicating directly with your mind.

The fusion of AI with Neuralink has the potential to launch us into an era of unprecedented innovation. Much as OpenAI's ChatGPT has revolutionized human-machine interaction through a natural language interface this year, Neuralink could forge an AI breakthrough that lets us communicate with machines using our brain signals. This is where Neural Link Processing (NLP) algorithms hope to transcribe our thoughts and neuronal firing patterns into meaningful interactions and commands.

The advent of Neuralink is as significant as when OpenAI introduced ChatGPT to the world. Those who embraced it early have witnessed its transformative potential across entertainment and everyday business operations. Now, as we teeter on the brink of the Brain AI era, the question remains — are we ready to seamlessly bridge the gap between our minds and AI? But without sleepwalking into creepy territory.

The rise of Transhumanism

For many, Neuralink represents the broader concept of Transhumanism, which some see as a threat to human identity and autonomy. A Transhumanist future where human capabilities may be significantly enhanced or altered through technology to make the privileged few limitless will fuel the underlying fear that we may lose our essential human traits. For example, if our brains are linked to computers, it could provide corporations, governments, or hackers access to our most intimate thoughts and experiences.

The fear is that this could also lead to unprecedented levels of surveillance, manipulation, and control.

Additionally, the specter of inequality is another primary concern. Neural enhancements could be costly and thus only available to the wealthy, leading to a societal split between those who can afford these enhancements and those who cannot. This could result in a new form of inequality, where 'enhanced' individuals have significant advantages over 'non-enhanced' ones in cognitive ability, health, and lifespan. The fear is that this could create a techno-elite class with vast power and privilege, exacerbating social and economic divides and possibly leading to societal conflict.

Lastly, there is a fear of unforeseen consequences associated with tampering with the human brain. Connecting emerging technology to an incredibly complex organ that we still don’t understand fully is a recipe for disaster. Even with the best intentions, altering brain function through devices like Neuralink could lead to unexpected side effects such as personality, mood, or memory changes.

Balancing technological progress with moral responsibility

The use of 1,500 animals in testing is also deeply troubling, especially at a time when we are repeatedly advised to reconnect with nature and a need for greater sustainability. If we’ve learned anything over the years, it's to balance progress with ethical considerations, ensuring that all research adheres to the strictest animal welfare standards. The cost of innovation should never outweigh our responsibility toward the ethical treatment of living beings, even as we explore the frontiers of knowledge.

There are also substantial concerns regarding the long-term physical safety of these implants. Before considering human trials, it’s imperative to thoroughly investigate further issues such as the potential migration of lithium batteries and implant wires within the brain. There's also the question of what happens if the technology malfunctions. These fears are further magnified by the speed at which these technologies develop, outpacing our ability to understand and regulate them fully.

Equally concerning is the potential for misuse of such transformative technologies. For example, neural implants can interface directly with our central organ — the brain — potentially manipulating our thoughts, emotions, and perceptions. This power could be used to revolutionize treatments for debilitating neurological conditions, but in the wrong hands, it could be misused for nefarious purposes.

Ensuring that the use of neural implants is stringently regulated and ethically sound is not just important; it's crucial. This calls for comprehensive legislation, stringent oversight, and ongoing ethical debate. This journey ahead is promising unprecedented advancements and possibilities. But as we navigate this uncharted territory, we must balance technological progress and moral responsibility.

Human access to computer intelligence in real-time will be incredibly appealing for elite athletes and anyone who wants to get a competitive edge over an individual or section of society. But this also opens up another set of problems. So it may be time to take our foot off the gas and slow down the speed of technological change to consider where this is taking us.

Would you allow Elon Musk to implant a chip in your brain? The potential is immense, but so are the risks. As an ex-IT change manager, I want to warn you that we must tread this path with a deep sense of responsibility and caution, embracing the opportunities it presents while, most importantly of all, managing its challenges.

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