Will Elon Musk herald the development of a neural lace?

On Jan 25, billionaire, entrepreneur and AI doomsayer Elon Musk followed up on the concept of a neural lace he discussed at a Vox Media conference in June 2016. During that conference he cited his concern that AI would rapidly outpace humanity to the point where humans would be relegated to the status of mere ‘house cats’ in their presence. To maintain parity, Musk described the requirement for a symbiotic neural lace that would create a digital third layer (subconscious and conscious being the natural two) of the brain to interface with AI.

Elon Musk at Vox Media conference in Jun 16

Elon Musk at Vox Media conference in Jun 2016 (source Recode – 58mins)

The concept of a neural lace isn’t new, the concept and term being coined by the late great author Iain M Banks, writer of the Culture series of novels which at their core, painted a utopian society in which super intelligent AI governed an eclectic mix of post humans who were free to lead their lives with minimal governance (Look to Windward first introduces this concept).

Current advances towards a digital interface

In April 2016, paralysis victim Ian Burkhart came to light as the test case at the State University of Ohio for a computer chip implanted into his brain. Through medical imaging, scientists were able to isolate those neurons in the cortex responsible for sending out signals controlling movement and with the chips bypassed the damaged spinal cord to send signals directly to Ian’s limbs.

In November 2016 scientists at the University Medical Centre Utrecht in the Netherlands reported on a Brain Control Interface (BCI) which allowed Hanneke de Bruijne, a test patient who suffers from ALS (a disease in which nerve cells break down, reducing functionality in the muscles that they supply) to communicate via reading of the BCI, her intent to control finger movements and through a system of binary choices, allow Hanneke to select letters to form words and sentences.

And in Feb 2017 it was reported scientists at the Wyss Centre for Bio and Neuroengineering in Geneva had developed a non-invasive BCI that picked up on signals determined to be the communication of a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answer sent by sufferers of Complete Locked In Syndrome (LIS) a condition in which a patient is aware but cannot move or communicate verbally due to complete paralysis of nearly all voluntary muscles in the body including those for eye movements and blinking.

Other examples heralding the development of BCIs include the first recognised human cyborg Neil Harbisson who has a sensory antenna osseo-integrated into his skull and allows him, amongst other functions, to ‘hear’ colours via the light frequencies they emit.

This method is not a true digital link per se as it relies on vibrations and sounds where Neil has memorised their corresponding colours. However, it does provide us with an insight to the plasticity of the brain and its ability to adapt to new stimuli.

Neural laces will open new fields in medicine

The brain is still a mystery on many levels and thus the rapid non-evolutionary introduction of a neural interface should give cause for concern in the medical sphere.

Firstly, how would you test such a thing? Well in June 2015 a group of researchers published in Nature Nanotechnology about a syringe injected ultra-fine mesh labelled ‘mesh electronics’. Successfully tested on mice, the researchers described the intended functionality of the mesh as: monitoring brain activity, delivering treatment for neurodegenerative disorders and brain enhancement capabilities. How effective this mesh is in performing its intended capability is not known, although they did reveal that brain cells of the mice grew around, and formed connections with, the wires.

It’s one thing to conduct tests on rodents and chimpanzees, but there are significantly more limitations in this than other medical trials.

To begin with, even if approved for widespread introduction to the masses, neurosurgeons (the most likely port of call should something go wrong) are not a plentiful commodity and would require using their valuable time to train on this new medical phenomenon.

The rapid non-evolutionary introduction of an alien sensory apparatus and its adoption by the brain is fraught with potential pitfalls. Let’s face it, not everyone will be able to cope with the rapid assimilation of data and there is the possibility that an ‘overload’ of information could cause physiological damage.

It’s not all bad though, a neural lace and its interface with a connected AI has the potential to revolutionise medicine on such a level that would cause shockwaves through the entire health industry. Imagine an integrated sensor that can identify existing conditions and combat them by harnessing the body’s own defence mechanisms in conjunction with the timely alert to both the individual and medical authorities. These in turn could be augmented by an AI capable of drawing information from the vast repository of medical knowledge no longer segmented and dispersed and able to provide a diagnosis in the blink of an eye.

As described in the aforementioned Culture novels, neural laces could also potentially deliver us digital immortality, whereby an individual’s thoughts, memory and personality can be stored and then, if they have chosen, reactivated in a freshly grown clone, a digital avatar or some form of cloud server ‘Nirvana’.

Adapting to the neural lace

The human psyche can be a fragile thing. There will be those unable to come to terms with something ‘crawling/ growing’ inside their head and seek immediate removal as their paranoia gets the better of them. And this is just factoring in the introduction of the lace let alone the effects of communicating with a superior AI.

Whilst the range of long-term psychological effects of a neural lace will be hard to predict, they should in the majority of cases be mitigated by a comprehensive integration program.

From the outset, a rigorous screening program developed by independent psychologists should ensure that only those deemed mentally resilient enough should be approved for a neural lace.

From there, ‘users’ would undergo a graduated integration program in which functionality of the lace would be drip fed to users which would ensure the human brain could readily assimilate the extra sensory capabilities introduced, ‘guiding’ the user to effective control of the lace.

At this point the lace and/ or interfacing AI should be able to identify any harmful changes in the psyche and act accordingly. Potentially this could be through the enactment of physiological measures such as balancing chemical releases in the brain or sending out warnings to medical professionals for intervention.

Should there be a debate on neural laces?

As always there are ethical issues to consider. Should an age limit be mandated before someone can have a neural lace implanted? One argument against the early introduction of it will almost certainly run along the lines that the human mind is in a rapid state of development past puberty and its drastic effects until at least early adulthood. On the other hand, the early integration of a lace that grows with the user would practically eliminate the potential psychological effects with the aforementioned medical benefits tipping the balance in favour of early adoption.

Further, with exponential advances across all fields, medicine, genetics, science and technology, each of them blurring into each other,  Neural laces introduced at a young age may be deemed a necessity in an AI dominated world, allowing individuals a much more rapid elevated and ultimately relevant education than methods could ever hope to match. Inevitably this will create a class divide in both education and in the workplace as those with the neural lace are going to have a competitive edge over the unenhanced.

Another consideration is what checks and measures should be placed upon an individual who through use of their neural lace and interface with AI, chooses to use it for criminal purposes. On the surface, a simple temporary shutdown of the lace could prove an effective deterrent, one administered by a cognisant AI that could readily identify criminal behaviour and redirect, counter and alert authorities as necessary. Obviously the level of intervention is cause for concern i.e. does thought constitute crime? Imagine the headache a political correctness filter in your own brain would cause!

Probably one of the biggest concerns to address would be encryption and the associated cyber security applied to an individual’s neural lace. Whilst slightly more advanced that your average smartphone, users are going to want some strong reassurances that the neural equivalent to hacking is nigh on impossible. This may be something that no one can guarantee as an AI, programmed by a malevolent actor (lets not get too caught up in Hal-esque systems) is likely to be able to access the neural lace due to the basic purpose and functionality of the device. Standard threats such as Malware and Virus’s aside (though scary in themselves), a hacked neural lace could lead to a whole new level of identity theft, that Inversion’s Leonardo Di Caprio, could ever hope to achieve. On the flip side, neural laces will pose a massive dilemma for those industries that require a strong degree of information security. Defence, defence industries, R&D firms etc which would traditionally protect themselves by forbidding devices that could record or transmit information, will have to balance the need for allowing access for enhanced individuals, be they employees or contractors against the risk that an insider equipped with such a device could record huge levels of data through the neural lace.

Wait and see

For now though we shall just have to wait and see. If Elon Musk’s tweet is anything to go by, an announcement on the development of a neural lace should be due this month. Unless he has kept a whole R&D team under wraps since June last year, the announcement is likely to signal his intent to invest in the research of the concept, be it through acquisition or an injection of finance. Whatever the announcement, the possibility of becoming truly transhuman within our lifetime is pretty amazing!


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