A couple of months ago, Elon Musk gave the first public presentation about Neuralink, a company he founded in 2017 to build brain-computer interfaces. While most of the research in that field has been focused on restoring functionality lost due to paralysis, Elon’s goals of cognitive enhancement target the healthy and able-bodied people.
Elon considers that artificial intelligence surpassing human intelligence is not just a probability, but a certainty. Instead of being left behind, he wants to achieve a symbiosis with artificial intelligence.
“With a high bandwidth brain-machine interface, we will have the option to go along for the ride.” – Elon Musk.
Much has been written about the ethical ramifications—there’s lots to be discussed in terms of privacy, potential coercion, interaction with a user's personality, legal responsibility of a user—but here I’d like to explore the potential impact of AI and Neuralink on knowledge management: how we learn, how we communicate, how we work.
Building on the shoulders of giants
Brain-computer interfaces aren’t new. In 2006, Matthew Nagle was the first person to receive a brain implant allowing him to control a computer cursor with the power of thought. In 2017, Bill Kochevar, who had lost all power of movement, received a similar procedure that allowed him to control his hand with his mind. He became able to eat and drink without assistance.
These are all unidirectional, allowing people to communicate or enabling motor control. But Elon’s vision is to make Neuralink bi-directional, becoming a true extension of the human mind by improving our memory, helping us learn, and ultimately making us smarter.
Without going too much into the technical details, there are two main innovations Elon revealed at the event that may bring him closer to his vision:
- Flexible threads that are much thinner than the materials currently being used in brain-computer interfaces: these are thinner than a human hair, and offer higher bandwidth, meaning more data from the brain will be able to be picked up.
- A neurosurgical robot capable of safely inserting these threads into the brain: it’s extremely quick, inserting six threads per minute quick enough, and is able to avoid blood vessels.
- A sensor device packed with custom chips enabling signal amplification and acquisition: this will allow the computer to receive better quality data from the brain.
Neuralink is currently being tested on mice. In their research paper, Neuralink says they have performed 19 surgeries with its robots and successfully placed the threads 87% of the time. In the Q&A at the end of the presentation, Elon also revealed that “a monkey has been able to control a computer with its brain.” Then he added: “Just, FYI.”
They are now seeking FDA approval to start clinical trials on humans as early as next year.
The way we learn
Learning and memory are two obvious areas that will be impacted by brain-computer interfaces. The US is already working on a programme to enhance learning of a range of cognitive skills in soldiers by encouraging neural plasticity in the brain.
Being able to use the Internet efficiently is like having a second brain. A brain-computer interface such as Neuralink, if it achieves bi-directionality, would mean you’d have access to all the public knowledge in the world, at all times, with zero latency.
This interaction could go from simply looking up information using your mind, to just knowing facts as if you had actually spent time studying them. Instead of building supercomputers, this would allow us to become superhumans.
Who is “us” though? There is already a persistent gap in educational performance between socioeconomic groups in many countries. It’s hard to ignore the disparity this future will create between the ones able to afford the technology and the ones who won’t. I said I wouldn’t talk about ethics in this article, but this question is particularly important for the future of work.
The way we communicate
From letters, telegrams, text messages, emails, and then direct brain-to-brain communication, we will have come a long way. But thought communication would probably be very different from regular communication.
“If I were to communicate a concept to you, you would essentially engage in consensual telepathy (...) The conversation would be conceptual interaction on a level that’s difficult to conceive of right now.” – Elon Musk in conversation with Tim Urban.
Forget what you saw on TV with people hearing each other’s voice in their head. The buzzing thoughts in your head are in no way shaped like the symbols you use to communicate them to others. With an advanced brain-computer interface, you could instantly send someone a picture or a piece of music you’ve been playing in your head.
You could also communicate your emotions and sensory information in a way that’s not possible today. Words are incredibly limited compared to the infinite range of human feelings. Neuralink could enable super-empathy in human beings by letting you actually feel what another person feels: their emotions, but also what they see, what they hear, the touch of the sun on their skin or the taste of the food they’re eating.
The way we work
These drastic changes in the ways we will earn and communicate in a world where Elon manages to achieve his vision for Neuralink have many implications for the way we work, especially for knowledge workers.
First, let’s talk about creative work. Imagine a world where you can instantly share your thoughts, ideas, sources of inspiration, sounds, or the exact colours and atmosphere you envision with the people you collaborate with. Imagine what a brainstorming session would look like.
Now, remember that everyone would not have to be in the same room. Remote work is in its infancy, but Neuralink would take it to a whole new level. Everyone could be on different continents, communicating their thoughts—their actual thoughts—in real time.
And of course, the way we work on our own will be radically different. Why have laptops with keyboards and a mousepad when we will be able to directly control the machine with our mind? What will a collaboration between a computer and a human brain look like once we go beyond the simple motor actions of moving the mouse or pressing some keys?
The potential impact on the pace of innovation cannot be overstated.
Merging with AI
In the above scenario, we humans still control the machines, albeit in a more efficient way. But Elon’s vision is to merge our brains with AI. First, we need to get a better understanding of how the brain works. This is why many agencies have been investing in neuroscience research, such as the BRAIN initiative in the US and the Human Brain Project in the EU.
This will give more time to policy-makers, philosophers, and science fiction enthusiasts to imagine and plan for a future where we will be able to instantly download knowledge into our brains, read each other’s thoughts, and collaborate with artificial intelligence just using our mind.
- An integrated brain-machine interface platform with thousands of channels (Neuralink’s white paper)
- Neurotechnology, Elon Musk and the goal of human enhancement (The Guardian)
- Neuralink and the Brain’s Magical Future (Wait But Why)
Anne-Laure Le Cunff, Founder, Ness Labs
Anne-Laure is a former lead in the digital health team at Google, a researcher, author, and the founder of Ness Labs, an award-winning venture studio focused on neuroscience-based self-help. She is an ambassador for Founders of the Future and a judge for The Webby Awards. She holds a MSc in Marketing and is an MSc of Applied Neuroscience candidate at King’s College. Her work and research has been featured in WIRED, Rolling Stone, the Financial Times, Forbes, Inc, and more.