Cyborgs R Us - Mind Reading with Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg

Cyborgs R Us - Mind Reading with Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg

Tech visionary and internet pioneer Elon Musk has a series of startups in different industries under his belt: finance, autonomous driving, space travel, and artificial intelligence. Now, the founder of PayPal, Tesla Motors, SpaceX and OpenAI wants to jumpstart research into boosting the performance of the human brain with his latest startup Neuralink. The Wall Street Journal reported that Musk wants to leverage brain-computer interfaces to make sure humans can keep up with the ever-increasing advances in AI. [1]

Neuralink is a logical outgrowth of Musk’s work in the field of AI. He once said about artificial intelligence:

„In terms of things that I think are most [likely] to affect the future of humanity, I think AI is probably the single biggest item in the near-term that's likely to affect humanity…  So, it's very important that we have the advent of AI in a good way.“

That includes making sure from the outset that it can’t be put to evil uses and neither dictators or rogue companies can monopolize AI. That, Musk argues, is only possible by democratizing AI. [2]

Creating the future 

That’s why he co-founded OpenAI, a non-profit with the mission “to build safe AGI, and ensure AGI's benefits are as widely and evenly distributed as possible.” Here’s how the organization describes itself on its website: “We're a non-profit research company. Our full-time staff of 60 researchers and engineers is dedicated to working towards our mission regardless of the opportunities for selfish gain which arise along the way. We focus on long-term research, working on problems that require us to make fundamental advances in AI capabilities. By being at the forefront of the field, we can influence the conditions under which AGI is created. As Alan Kay said:

„The best way to predict the future is to invent it.“ [3]

Musk’s new company Neuralink is tasked with developing a new “Whole-Brain-Interface“ that’s fully integrated into the human brain. It would be inconspicuous compared to current devices which create a connection between brain waves and computers and, at the very least, are bulky. Thanks to this interface, the brain would be able to connect wirelessly to the cloud, as well as with computers and other brains with the same interface. Exchanging information between the brain and its environment would be as effortless as and feel like thinking, according to the blog Waitbutwhy [4] that compares the invention to a magic wand.

Humans are cyborgs

Before we get to augmenting the brain, the idea is to ameliorate illnesses such as epilepsy or Parkinson’s disease. While that may sound creepy to some, in Musk’s opinion we’ve already become cyborgs: “You’re a different being than you were ten or 20 years ago.” Smartphones and laptops have long turned us into all-knowing and all-powerful creatures. [5]

It’s a point echoed by Cyborg e.V., the German “association for the promotion and critical observation of merging man and technology,” in its mission statement: “Technology is a part of us, a product of our thoughts, wishes and goals. It’s not something external but an expression of our shared culture, part of our environment and a part of us. We have long become a society of cyborgs even if most individuals don’t feel like cyborgs. (…)

Technological change and the augmentation of the human body in order to adapt to survival in space and other cultures and biospheres is the natural, evolutionary progress of humans in the humanist tradition. Cyborgs are people. Man has always been modifying his mind by way of thought and education. Being human is about the totality of body and mind. That’s why it’s absurd to approve modifications of the mind but to reject those of the body." [6]

Humans are lame cyborgs

While you might argue that technical augmentation of the brain with a smartphone turns us into cyborgs, the speed of the connection leaves much to be desired if you compare it to the performance of a computer. Tapping out a search query on Google to access all knowledge takes a few seconds, at best shortened by suggestions from the search engine. Reading results means more precious time lost. Adults who are not professional speed readers can digest about 100 words per minute. An average pro can get up to 200-300 words a minute as long as the text is not too complicated. Really fast readers clock in at up to 1,000 words per minute. [7] Things would progress much faster if all that information went straight to the brain via a new interface, without taking the detour of converting information into written text and vice versa.

Facebook direct

That’s the way Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg wants to turn thoughts into social media posts.
In principle, it sounds like a nice idea to text a friend by willpower alone. At the company’s annual developer conference F8 in April, Facebook manager Regina Dugan talked about the goal to get to 100 words a minute, quoting research done at Stanford University. Thanks to electronic implants, a paralyzed patient was able to type eight words a minute into a computer. This method doesn’t work for mass market adoption, since hardly any consumer would want to undergo invasive surgery to implant such an interface.”This technology doesn’t exist yet. We will have to invent it,” said Dugan. Facebook reportedly has a team of 60 working on turning this dream into reality. Thanks to AI, users should be able to express themselves in foreign tongues since thoughts could be converted even into languages that someone thinking a phrase can’t speak. [8]

Is mind reading science fiction?

AI systems already perform feats such as controlling a prosthetic arm via thoughts. Intelligent sensors can even sensitize prosthetics, letting the wearer “feel” the object they’re touching. Enno Park with Cyborg e.V., however, is critical of these developments: “In medicine, the already existing options lead us to perceive humans as a machine that can be repaired. That’s a fallacy.” He points to cochlear implants as an example. “It electrically stimulates the auditory nerve in the inner ear to create the impression inside the brain that we can hear. But in order to process these stimuli, the patent must have learned how to hear during early childhood development and developed the corresponding cerebral structures. You can’t catch in later years. That’s why it doesn’t make much sense to retrofit an adult who has been born without hearing with a cochlear implant. In spite of the implant, he or she will still have a really hard time understanding even fragments of a spoken sentence. He will still be dependent on sign language while a person who could hear as a child and then became deaf stands a good chance to regain normal hearing with an implant.”

What’s more, the human brain is very complex, casting doubt on the notion that Musk’s or Zuckerberg’s research efforts will quickly yield results. One researcher has compared the state of research with a walk. If the complete understanding of the human brain measures a mile, we’ve barely walked three inches. Park agrees: “The human brain is a special developmental hurdle. We can understand how neural networks function and successfully use that for deep learning. But that doesn’t mean you can just electronically read a brain. Current brain implants are rather primitive by comparison and coarsely stimulate entire brain regions to alleviate the symptoms of Parkinson’s. Mind reading, programming the brain or brain-internet interfaces are science fiction for the time being. Projections based on those advances expect a super-intelligence will emerge by the middle of the century that is capable of decoding thoughts and feelings inside the human brain. It’s anything but certain that we will have the necessary compute power anytime soon.” [9]

You don’t need to understand everything

Neuralink co-founder Flip Sabes counters that “it’s possible to decode all of those things in the brain without truly understanding the dynamics of the computation in the brain. Being able to read it out is an engineering problem. Being able to understand its origin and the organization of the neurons in fine detail in a way that would satisfy a neuroscientist to the core—that’s a separate problem. And we don’t need to solve all of those scientific problems in order to make progress.“ [10]

Time will tell what Neuralink, Facebook and others can achieve. But their work raises to questions that can’t be answered with the American belief in progress alone. Who are you if you “technically augment” yourself and “become one” with a computer? Where does the border to the outside, the otherness run? Where does “being Myself” end? And what happens when two people are networked with the same computer, and who owns how many MB of the system?

Here’s what Park says: “On a fundamental level, you can’t presume a clear separation of the Self from its surroundings. That’s due to the many influences humans are exposed to and due to the many interactions we have, starting with the physical to the intellectual-social dimension. Identity, integrity, independence will always be defined by a human being’s physical and social environment. What belongs to the Self and what doesn’t, though, is slowly shifting over to the devices we use.”

Questions around AI and interfaces to better communicate with computers are not just technical in nature but have legal, philosophical and ethical aspects we can’t avoid. The title of the famous song “Thoughts are free” is a demand, not a statement and therefore shouldn’t be taken for granted. Freedoms have to be continuously defended, and it’s a legitimate question whether interfaces add to or diminish our freedom. That’s the yardstick by which to measure the endeavors of Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg.



[1] The Wall Street Journal: Elon Musk Launches Neuralink to Connect Brains With Computers
2017-03-27, (accessed 2017-07-19)

[2] Y Combinator: Elon Musk: How to Build the future
(accessed 2017-07-19)

[3] About OpenAI: Artificial general intelligence (AGI) will be the most significant technology ever created by humans (accessed 2017-07-19)

[4] Wait but why: Neuralink and the Brain’s Magical Future
2017-04-20, (accessed 2017-07-19)

[5] Springer Professional: Elon Musk forscht an Cyborgs
2017-03-28, (accessed 2017-07-19)

[6] CyborgsWiki: Manifest
2014-11-08, (accessed 2017-07-19)

[7] Süddeutsche Zeitung: Lesen mit doppelter Geschwindigkeit: 1000 Wörter pro Minute
2011-09-16, (accessed 2017-07-19)

[8] Zeit Online: Facebook will Gedanken lesen
2017-04-20, (accessed 2017-07-19)

[9] Deutscher Bundestag: Ausschuss Digitale Agenda: Fachgespräch zum Thema „Künstliche Intelligenz“
2017-03-22, (accessed 2017-07-19)

[10] Wait but why: Neuralink and the Brain’s Magical Future
2017-04-20, (accessed 2017-07-19)

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