Boston Herald

Would you let Elon Musk implant a device in your brain?

- By Tyler Cowen Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist./Tribune News Service

Elon Musk’s Neuralink received approval last month from the Food and Drug Administra­tion to conduct human clinical trials, which one former FDA official called “really a big deal.” I do not disagree, but I am skeptical that this technology will “change everything.” Not every profound technologi­cal advance has broad social and economic implicatio­ns.

With Neuralink’s device, a robot surgically inserts a device into the brain that can then decode some brain activity and connect the brain signals to computers and other machines. A person paralyzed from the neck down, for example, could use the interface to manipulate her physical environmen­t, as well as to write and communicat­e.

This would indeed be a breakthrou­gh — for people with paralysis or traumatic brain injuries. For others, I am not so sure.

There are other ways of augmenting my intelligen­ce with computers, most notably the recent AI innovation­s. It is true that I can think faster than I can speak or type, but — I’m just not in that much of a hurry. I would rather learn how to type on my phone as fast as a teenager does.

A related vision of direct brain-computer interface is that the computers will be able to rapidly inject useful knowledge into our brains. Imagine going to bed, turning on your brain device, and waking up knowing Chinese. Sounds amazing — yet if that were possible, so would all sorts of other scenarios, not all of them benign, where a computer can alter or control our brains. I also view this scenario as remote — unlike using your brain to manipulate objects, it seems true science fiction. Current technologi­es read brain signals but do not control them.

Another vision for this technology is that the owners of computers will want to “rent out” the powers of human brains, much the way companies rent out space today in the cloud. Software programs are not good at some skills, such as identifyin­g unacceptab­le speech or images. In this scenario, the connected brains come largely from low-wage laborers, just as both social media companies and OpenAI have used low-wage labor in Kenya to grade the quality of output or to help make content decisions.

Those investment­s may be good for raising the wages of those people. Many observers may object, however, that a new and more insidious class distinctio­n will have been created — between those who have to hook up to machines to make a living, and those who do not.

Might there be scenarios where higherwage workers wish to be hooked up to the machine? Wouldn’t it be helpful for a spy or a corporate negotiator to receive computer intelligen­ce in real time while making decisions? Would profession­al sports allow such brain-computer interfaces? They might be useful in telling a baseball player when to swing and when not to.

The more I ponder these options, the more skeptical I become about large-scale uses of braincompu­ter interface for the non-disabled. Artificial intelligen­ce has been progressin­g at an amazing pace, and it doesn’t require any intrusion into our bodies, much less our brains. There are always earplugs and some future version of Google Glass.

Of course, companies such as Neuralink may prove me wrong. But for the moment I am keeping my bets on artificial intelligen­ce and large language models, which sit a comfortabl­e few inches away from me as I write this.

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