Last Thursday, Elon Musk’s brain implant company Neuralink announced that it has received approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to conduct in-human clinical trials. The company is developing a chip that should be implanted in the brain with the intent to help patients with severe paralysis to control external technologies and communicate with their environment by moving cursors and typing with their minds using only brain signals. In addition to helping patients with paralysis, experts believe such implants can help treat blindness and mental illness. Musk even expressed his intent for Neuralink to explore potential applications for healthy people.
Just as Artificial Intelligence has become an integral part of our lives, computer chips implanted in our brains will become increasingly commonplace. We cannot stop scientific development; if something can be done, it will be done. The question is not whether or not to permit the development of brain-chips, but how to avoid their countless harmful uses.
As with every new technology, the first use for brain-implanted chips will be for military purposes: as weapons. The destructive potential of turning such technologies into weapons is enormous. The only way to avoid employing them against humanity is by rising to a higher level of humanism than our current reality of relentless power struggles.
Translating thoughts into cursor movements may seem benign, but there is much more to it. The aspiration to apply the technology on healthy people can potentially give its operators control over people’s minds, turn them into zombies, and activate them according to the operator’s will. This may not seem as devastating as a nuclear weapon, for example, but in the wrong hands, it can be even more injurious.
Worse yet, the harm of nuclear weapons is evident, which deters nations from using it, even as they continue to develop them. Brain implants that control people’s actions, however, are a new kind of weapon, and there is nothing to stop power-hungry rulers and magnates from using it, since there is no fear of the consequences. By the time we know what harm this new menace can inflict, humanity could be in total devastation.
Perhaps the only way to restrain abuse of this new power is to have an open discussion about its potential harms. Awareness may be our only counter measure, our only defense against weaponizing mind-control technologies.
In the end, however, I am a firm believer in the good fate of humanity. Whether we realize in time the detrimental potential of computers that control the mind and avoid more tragedies, or realize that we must restrain ourselves only after we inflict disaster on ourselves, as we did with atom bombs, we will ultimately muster the strength to use technology wisely and in our favor.
Human nature is evil at the core and relentlessly pushes us toward the precipice. However, human beings are also able to draw conclusions and choose their course in life. Today we know that destruction of one is the destruction of the other, that harming others harms the harm-doer. Therefore, I believe that we will finally draw the inevitable conclusion that we cannot work in favor of only one part or faction of humanity, that no one benefits unless everyone benefits.
Once we accept this, as unappealing as it may be to our ego, we will begin to conduct ourselves in ways that benefit humanity. Prosperity is possible only when exploitation and oppression become unacceptable, when we feel, not simply think, but truly feel that technology can be used positively only when it is used for everyone’s sake, and not only for the sake of a powerful few.