Elon Musk didn't get where he is by going after "safe" ideas--his willingness to take on risk and tackle projects that push boundaries is exactly what has made him one of America's leading entrepreneurs and earned him a spot on President Donald Trump's Economic Advisory Council. But Neuralink, Musk's latest venture, might be his most profoundly influential project ever. The company is developing an implantable brain-to-computer interface that would blur the line between humans and tech. Here's why you should be concerned--and unabashedly hopeful.

One goal, a load of tough questions

As Christopher Markou writes in The Conversation (republished in Scientific American), Neuralink would enable you to be biologically connected to the Internet, supporting seamless communications without speech or writing. But the hurdles to practical implementation are many. The company forces individuals--and us as a society--to ask questions like

  • Are you willing to accept the risks of unnecessary surgery to gain the potential benefits of an implanted brain-computer interface?
  • How do you plan to regulate and control the interface?
  • How do you plan to maintain security and keep others from exploiting/controlling you through the interface system?
  • Would you eventually require implantation of the interface by default?

Additional questions include

  • What happens to health and productivity if the interface becomes normalized but then individually or collectively fails?
  • Where is the money going to come from to support the research and development of the interface?
  • Who will be in control of the system overall and why? Governments? Corporations? Marketing agencies?
  • How will a brain-computer interface influence our sense of self and awareness?

None of these questions are even remotely close to having thorough answers, yet Musk is throwing his clout heavily behind the interface concept.

Why Neuralink means hope

Despite how many challenges Neuralink has to charge and trample, the company has many investors and members of the general public drooling. That's because they know that, as Musk and his company unravel more of the brain's mysteries, they'll develop new medical techniques and devices that are applicable to a myriad of health conditions, such as Parkinson's and even general aging. In fact, before selling their company name to Musk, Pedram Mohseni and Randolph Nudo started the original Neuralink with a focus on helping people with brain injuries. And more information about the brain could affect operational standards, too, with companies altering efficiency practices based on new understanding of how the mind works. The big prize, though, is unlocking the brain to such a degree that, by fusing it with artificial intelligence, the mind becomes even more powerful than it would be by itself. What mankind might discover and produce if that happens could make today's systems look about as innovative as a stick.

Not yet, but soon

Experts assert that we're a good two decades away from having brain-computer interfaces be technologies we use in daily living, and that's an optimistic forecast. Professionals still don't really understand much of brain function or decline, which makes Neuralink, for the moment, a bit of a cart before the horse. But for better or worse, the day is coming where those interfaces are reality, where companies like Neuralink dominate the AI space. Even as we struggle to create a foundation on which these businesses ethically and logistically can work with safe results, Musk is setting a new bar for what innovation looks like, encouraging visionaries to pursue their wildest dreams. That alone deserves respect, regardless of what fruit actually might fall from the Neuralink tree.

Published on: May 9, 2017