Yesterday evening (Pacific Time), while we in Europe were tucked up in our dreams, Elon Musk hosted a press conference for one of his most exciting ventures yet. The organisation is called Neuralink and its stated aim is to develop implantable brain-machine interfaces.
Those who are aware of Mr Musks previous statements in this field will know that he has been a vocal Cassandra when it comes to the fate of mankind against the rise of the machines. Indeed for the imaginative among us it doesn't take too much of a leap to envisage a future where hyper capable and mechanised super intelligences are able to see our flesh and blood existence as nothing more than a primitive curiosity to be regarded perhaps at the level of a pet.
So when I heard about the press conference and the hubbub that its announcement had aroused in the cognoscenti press my own curiosity was thoroughly piqued. You see, since I myself began to muse about this potentially existential threat to mankind I have always seen it as a distraction as I have felt that the process of human augmentation, who's origins can be traced as far back as Long John Silver, would be the future where any 'rise of the machines' would carry us with them. Indeed it is more likely that, if we are to seek out a dystopian slant on this discussion, the horror future would be one where augmented humanity (wealth) and vanilla humanity (poverty) were at odds with each other.
Notwithstanding the philosophical discussions however, the announcement last night, as is so often the case, has proven to be a lot less than the aficionados predicted and a lot more than the sceptics expected. The company (Neuralink) appears to be making solid progress albeit not in human bodies. Indeed Mr Musk himself appeared to blurt out to the chagrin of the scientists around him that they had successfully tested their tech in a monkey. Putting aside my own personal misgivings about trialling these things on unsuspecting lab rats or monkeys, this would appear to be pretty significant news. If we are to take the claims at face value, the technology has now been proven in principle and we should not underplay the significance of this revelation.
Science has been integrating tech with flesh and bone for decades but it is the incursion into the last bastion of the unexplored, the human brain that makes this so important. We need only look at the global attention that has been given to The Human Brain Project to understand the way this captures our attention. Neuroscientists have been studying for years to understand the workings of the supercomputers we all carry around with us and in connecting machines to our brains we would seem to be a whole lot closer to that day. Questions of the nature of consciousness and the existential nature of what we may call our identity or soul fly around the perimeters of this discussion but at its heart lies the notion that our bodies and indeed our brains are chemical machines and when we can understand the systems in action we can begin to harness them and make them work to our greater good (and bad).
Mr Musk has announced that he and his company of pioneering scientists intend to place their systems into a human in 2020 and this if accomplished will indeed be a day that will go down in history for the long term. So we wait and we watch. A world now used to the headlong nature of progress will perhaps be wowed once again as science takes us to new heights. The future is ours to shape and as with any new technology in the hands of us human apes it will not be a question of what the technology CAN do that will be the measure of the science but rather what we as a species CHOOSE to do with it. Lets hope we're up to the challenge.
Neuralink website here
Livestream of event here
Much more here