We’re one step closer to becoming cyborgs, and I’m glad: Life Hacks by Charles Assisi

Updated on Sep 06, 2020 05:50 AM IST
Elon Musk just announced that he’ll be making microchips we can embed in our brains. Here’s why I will be first in line.
The chips Elon Musk spoke of in his recent live-streamed conference would help monitor health, but also likely enable us to use our brains differently, and better.(AP Photo / Susan Walsh)
The chips Elon Musk spoke of in his recent live-streamed conference would help monitor health, but also likely enable us to use our brains differently, and better.(AP Photo / Susan Walsh)
Hindustan Times | ByCharles Assisi

I’ve been in a funk lately, and it has nothing to do with the tailspin the economy is in. It was triggered instead by a presentation by that crazy billionaire Elon Musk, showcasing how far his hyper-secretive company Neuralink has come.

His entity has been at work for a while now on chip-sized, brain-machine interfaces that can be surgically implanted into humans, in a painless, Lasik-like procedure. To explain, he held a live-streamed conference last week, where some pigs were brought on to the stage. Some of them had the implants in their snouts and others did not. The animals with implants performed better at various tasks than those without. Demo done with, Musk advised the audience to think of these chips as “a Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires” that hook up to the brain.

Human trials will begin later this year. The initial intent, they say, will be to help people recover from a stroke or help ‘de-addict’ those hooked to substances of various kinds.

The twist in Musk’s vision of the future is that a healthy person can have these chips soldered into their brains as well, and use them to, for instance, track their health in real time or be warned of an impending heart attack.

Because it is embedded in the brain, all your memories can be stored on it, forever. This opens up other possibilities — such as creating a virtual version of yourself, or an avatar. This avatar could go rock-climbing while you sit on a couch at home; play a musical instrument to a tune humming in your head; or fall in love, sort of on your behalf.

This is a world where reality and virtuality begin to fuse. What is real and what is imagined in this world? How are we to draw the boundaries? Even this column feels like science fiction. But the touchscreen was written off as just that when Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPhone in 2007. A prominent technology journalist described it as “tough to use”. Jobs responded: “Your thumbs will learn.” And he was right.

Things are now at the point where those without access to a touchscreen device are seen as underprivileged. That is why I am unwilling to dismiss Elon Musk. In any case, iterations of brain-machine interfaces have been around for a few decades. Musk just took the idea of a merge one step closer to reality.

The time to begin preparing for the disruption it can cause is now, because all that we know about the future is about to change. Think about it. A fundamental argument for what makes humans has always been, the fact that we can educate ourselves. But we now have artificial intelligences that is able to do this too.

Meanwhile, much of our body of knowledge has acquired a shrinking shelf life. Where, until the early ’80s, a medical student could expect to stay up-to-date for about 12 years, this year it is estimated that medical knowledge will double every 73 days. In other words, a medical graduate will be obsolete before they even leave college.

It’s the same in engineering. In 2017, James Plummer, former dean of engineering at Stanford University, placed on record that the half-life of engineering graduates is anywhere between three and five years. This truth is something professionals across domains must confront, as the half-life of knowledge collapses daily.

The limits of being human are now constantly being pushed. When algorithms such as Deep-speare can craft Shakespearean verse and art generated by AI can be auctioned for hundreds of thousands of dollars, how does anyone stay relevant?

Once the chips Elon Musk demonstrated reach the mainstream, there will be two kinds of people once again — those who possess one and those who do not. The former will undoubtedly have an advantage over the latter.

I, for one, will be in line when those chips hit the market. I want one embedded in my head. My kids think that’s weird. I’ve spoken to them about free will.

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