No this isn’t an episode of Black Mirror, it’s just our favourite e-boy Elon Musk’s most ambitious sci-fi project yet. Let’s take a look at what this project – Neuralink – hopes to achieve before delving into its future prospects and possible unintentional ethical issues that may come along with this brain-machine interface.
Musk’s startup – Neuralink, aims to embed an electronic computer chip connected to extremely tiny threads [1/10th the diameter of hair] that have electrodes at the end of them to a person’s brain. This process will be carried out by a surgical robot in the least invasive way possible [equivalent to a LASIK procedure] and will be connected to a receiver placed behind a person’s ear, which will communicate with a computer.
Each of these threads will have multiple electrodes attached to them which can detect action potentials [electrical spike which causes neurotransmitters to be released from the end of axons] in a magnitude that has never been achieved before. With this Neuralink, believes that sometime in the near future, people will be able to control their smartphones with their mind and even perform functions that a mouse and keyboard does. In hopes that quadriplegics will one day be able to be more independent amongst themselves. In addition to this, quadriplegics would be able to use mobile and smart devices without much effort.
All these operations are to be controlled through a simple mobile app. Musk also added that it will allow both read and write operations, which opens up a whole new realm of possibilities.
It could potentially help serious medical cases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s by stimulating certain neurons in the brain, by using the electrodes to recreate an action potential for emitting neurotransmitters between the axons.
If you can control your smartphone, you could also potentially control everything that categorizes as IOT [Internet of Things]. This will make it easier to monitor somebody’s health over time and with Tesla’s self driving cars would even enable quadriplegics to get to their desired destination without much assistance. Prosthetic’s will also be more responsive and serve as a direct extension of that particular limb or appendage.
Now we take a look at the budding problems that would inevitably creep up with an advancement in brain interface technologies like this.
Since it is going to be implemented on a mobile app, this would allow the possibility of a hacker to get a hold a person’s neurological data or even worse, manipulate it through write functions.
Data security being of prime importance to every individual in this era, the possibility of your data being sold or leaked to a third party doesn’t sit well with anybody: remember the whole Facebook and Cambridge Analytica controversy? Now imagine this data was coming directly from the ECG and neurological readings from your brain. The potential to manipulate consumers or sway them into buying certain products through the simple means of ads would be ethically unjust.
With more advancements in Neuralink technology and more companies similar to them coming out with parallel use cases for this technology, it could become hard to regulate the monitoring of this sensitive data. Given that this data might eventually include information about how a person reacts to a certain situation or while viewing certain content, it wouldn’t be too difficult to establish behavioural patterns in every individual.
We could potentially end up in a Minority Report type of situation where they would know what you were about to do even before you did. People could be flagged for something they didn’t even do or actions they didn’t commit.
Although the last section seems like a dystopian, sci-fi narrative, we can’t rule out any possibility that comes with a technological advancement of this magnitude. Every such milestone in the progression of the human race will have people who will try and abuse it, especially if it falls in the wrong hands. This, however, could be said about any technological advancement in history, right from the Industrial Revolution to the Atomic Age. But the most important thing to consider here is the milestone itself rather than looking at it like a Philip K. Dick Novel.