Musk and Zuckerberg: not mad, just wildly optimistic on brain interface

Written by on April 26, 2017 in Opinion with 0 Comments

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Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg want to connect your brain to your computer and your Facebook page. The problem isn’t the technology but their timelines. We’ve heard in the past week plans by Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg to connect your brain to your computer and your Facebook page, respectively. Which would normally get you laughed out of the room except for a couple of things: (1) tech journalists of a certain age (including, I’ll be the first to admit, me) are suckers for this kind of thing thanks to those William Gibson novels we read in college, and (2) the fact that it’s Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg saying these things, which somehow gives the notion of brain-computer interfaces some kind of credibility.

Also, it’s not entirely science-fiction. Scientists and tech companies have been working on telepathic-type communications for decades, and enough progress has been made to suggest that typing tweets by thought will one day be possible.

However, the real question is how soon “one day” is. Regina Dugan, who helms Facebook’s DARPA-inspired Building 8, said last week that it should be possible to use headgear to type up to 100 words a minute on a computer by thinking them in a couple of years. Musk, in a 36,000 word essay (recommended), claimed that within eight to ten years, we will be able to communicate with computers via direct brain implants – and indeed we’ll have to if we want to keep up with artificial intelligence.

Over at MIT Technology Review, Antonio Regalado makes a good case that both timelines are basically nonsense. The point isn’t that brain-machine interfaces are technologically impossible – but that it’s way more complicated than Musk in particular makes it sound:

Brain-implant technology has been developing pretty slowly and is still mostly stuck in academia precisely because it’s so complex. You need a way to record from the brain, a compact wireless chipset to transmit the signals, algorithms to know what they mean, and the medical knowledge to actually carry it off. “It’s not solely reliant on just technology but also science,” says Shaun Patel, a fellow in neurosurgery at Massachusetts General Hospital who researches brain-computer interfaces. “It’s the execution of many facets. There is no single problem. There are many problems.”

Musk’s implant dream has another snag: it requires brain surgery, which is not a trivial (or cheap) procedure. It’s one thing to install brain implants as a legitimate medical procedure to correct a particular problem (which is what Musk’s Neuralink is initially focusing on) – it’s another to stick them safely in the brain of a healthy person.

That’s one reason why Building 8 and other researchers are looking at non-invasive options like “wizard hats” that monitor brain activity from outside your skull – but the tradeoff in performance is considerable, which is probably why 100 words a minute is as ambitious as Building 8 is inclined to get for now. And even that is pushing things within Dugan’s timeline, Regalado says.

It’s worth remembering that we’ve heard this sort of thing before. Way back in the mid-1990s, a company called The Other 90% released something called the Minddrive, a PC peripheral that purportedly enabled you to control software by thought (channeled through your fingertips). At the time there were a number of breathless pronouncements about how computer telepathy was just around the corner. If you’ve never heard of the Minddrive – or had forgotten about it until you read this paragraph – that should give you an idea of how well it worked and how successful it was.

(Fun fact: The Other 90% was so-named because it’s mission statement was to help humans use the 90% of their brain that we don’t use – which, incidentally, is a myth.)

It’s probably fair to ask if it really matters if Elon Musk’s or Facebook’s timelines are unrealistic if the technology itself is feasible. So implants are 40 years away instead of eight – so what? It’s Elon Musk’s money and he can do whatever he wants with it. (Even if it’s VC money, he can do what he wants with that, because VCs should know what they’re getting into when they give people like Musk their money.) And to reiterate, all of this is technologically possible – even if it doesn’t result in literal telepathy, the benefits could be substantial in developing useful technologies that allow humans to control bionic arms, for example.

Personally I’m looking forward to see where this line of research goes and what people like Musk do with it. I just hope I’m still alive when we start seeing results.

This article was first published on our sister publication, Disruptive.Asia.

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John C. Tanner

About the Author

About the Author: John is editor of Disruptive.Asia and was previously managing editor at Telecom Asia. He has been covering the Asia-Pacific telecoms industry since 1996. He has two degrees in telecommunications and has worked for six years in the US radio industry in various technical and advisory capacities, covering radio and satellite equipment maintenance, studio networking, news writing and production, the latter of which earned him several regional and national awards. .

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