Around the County

Just when you think you’ve seen it all

By Pat Stuart
Posted 6/6/23

Just when you think you’ve seen it all, and just when you’re hoping the world’s scientists, technicians, engineers and designers will give futuristic inventions a rest, something …

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Around the County

Just when you think you’ve seen it all


Just when you think you’ve seen it all, and just when you’re hoping the world’s scientists, technicians, engineers and designers will give futuristic inventions a rest, something else comes along.  

Elon Musk produced the latest eye-catching headline concerning a field of work termed brain-computer interface. The developer of PayPal and Tesla and Space X and the owner of Twitter, it turns out, has been investing heavily in a brain-inserted device capable of decoding brain activity and linking the brain’s signals with computers.  

Now, the general idea isn’t new. Companies like Blackrock Neurotech and Synchron have been working for years on brain-computer interfaces to allow the brain to control artificial limbs as though they were the originals. Thus far, some 42 people worldwide have had such implants, which work to a greater or lesser degree.  

Musk, though, aims to take this brain-computer interface technology to another level, to insert a device on the surface of the brain that not only controls functioning of artificial body parts but enhances them and the overall capabilities of the brain.

My brain boggles at this concept, one that looks totally realistic. Already I’m seeing Google and Bing and all those wanna-be search engines made obsolete. Who needs them when your own personal brain chip is interfaced with a large-language (generative) AI. Think the question, and you instantly know the answer.

Students will ace their exams.

Universities will close.

Superhuman strength will become normal, and sports authorities will stop worrying so much about enhancement drugs and start regulating the types and powers of chip implants.

Paper books will vanish.

Lawyers can pack up their diplomas and become truck drivers. Who will need them when we all have access to vast legal resources and possess our own AI that can sort through them to find whatever? On that subject, did you know that ChatGPT, last year, passed a bar exam in the 90 percentile? It’s true.

So many other huge economic, social and cultural changes will creep up on us.

Of course, none of that is now.

Now, Elon Musk has a start-up, Neuralink, of 400 employees with capitalization of $363 million engaged in building an electron-laden computer chip that can be surgically sewn into the surface of the brain and a robotic arm to do the insertion.  

The headlines that caught my attention came from an announcement by Musk that the FDA approved human trials for Neuralink’s hardware.

Which, in true Elon Musk tradition, might or might not be true. The FDA, when asked to comment, said that it “acknowledges and confirms” that such an announcement was made by Musk.

OK... . More than likely Musk just wanted a plausible, if fabricated, hook for a burst of publicity to attract more investors.

Well, that is Elon Musk acting true to form and making it up as he goes along.  

Being the man he is, of course, he already does have a working device and has run trials on test animals including planting a chip in a monkey’s brain and teaching it to play a simulation game with its mind. Which sounds relatively harmless — to everyone but, possibly, the monkey.

Is it? Bionic man/woman move over. Superman, superwoman, super boy and girl are here. Sounds pretty good. Right? Such developments in this field, in fact, have progressed so slowly and with such positive human drama that I, for one, have come to accept them as something that can only benefit mankind.

For sure that’ll be true for the world’s war machines. The military applications will be huge. Which is where the moral and ethical questions begin.  

Consider, with a chip interface in your brain your thinking and functioning become two-way streets between a computer somewhere and your brain. Who controls the servers? Who selects what your AI can do to and for you? Take time out to wonder ... with a chip in your brain, are you really in control of your own thoughts? Was it your own idea, for example, to march in a demonstration or vote for X candidate or tweet how wonderful Elon Musk is or ... ?

Going beyond a long list of core ethical and moral questions, I can easily imagine fiction becoming reality and a favorite theme of SciFi writers coming to life. It’s all too readily apparent that those with implants could become human zombies enslaved by a master generative-plus AI computer under the control of some evil genius.   

In an earlier column I reported ChatGPT suggesting a name for our era — the Computer Age.  More and more it’s beginning to seem a very accurate reflection of a coming reality.