Elon Musk has recently unveiled his company’s first Neuralink device implanted in an experimental animal — a pig.
To briefly describe the device for those without much technical knowledge, it is an invasive technology based on the concept of a neural lace, which is a mesh of perhaps hundreds of wires laced throughout the brain albeit with concentration of connections in certain areas. These either sample neural patterns or modify them. Needless to say, even the minor technical challenges are massive. For example, it involves brain surgery. Then we have bio-compatibility problems as typically implanted electrodes tend to cause the tissues around them to die back. Finally, actually transferring massive amounts of data through the skull to and from an implanted and (presumably) powered computer. Elon Musk may well be able to solve these problems since they are not new technical challenges and a considerable amount of work has already been done in this area. Even automating the brain surgery may well be feasible using robotics.
The really big problem is making sense of the data flowing from the brain, and inserting data that the brain can understand. For techie fans this is all being hyped up like a scene from the movie The Matrix, where a character downloads everything from a deep knowledge of martial arts skills to the ability to fly a helicopter, in seconds. The optimists talk about downloading an entire education into the brain in hours instead of years and so forth. Not to mention laying down other memories, whether fact or fiction, or even joining minds together into Borg-like gestalts.
Indeed, projects to create an artificial hippocampus have been going on for years. That is a part of the brain concerned with laying down and retrieving memories. Neuralink is taking all of this to a new level. However, the roadblock to making all of the Matrix style technology possible is interpreting what is loosely termed “brain language”. This is, the myriad of neural firings that underlie mental events and representations. There is also the question of whether electronics can lay down knowledge any faster than, say, reading a book or watching a video. Both of the latter are already very high bandwidth inputs into the brain which are optimized to do just that. So what we are really talking about is laying down knowledge — that is, already structured data matched to an individual’s brain. Unfortunately, it seems quite likely that everyone’s brain language is different, so any interface will have to go through a lengthy learning process even if it is possible.
That is not to say that Neuralink could not be useful, especially when it comes to bypassing sensory input. So eventually the blind may see and the deaf hear. Indeed, these technologies already exist albeit in a very low resolution form. Neuralink may change that.
The core of this article is what else Neuralink may be used for that is already possible and found to be effective, and which is seldom mentioned in the press. It is the use of electrodes spread throughout the brain to stimulate or inhibit whole areas of the brain and their responses. This has a history of experimentation behind it stretching back decades and where truly “dark” applications can be envisaged. The pioneer of this technology of using radio-controlled implanted electrodes was the remarkable professor of both physiology and psychiatry at Yale, Jose Delgado with his Stimoceiver. For those interested, there is a YouTube video of his famous demonstration of controlling an attacking bull by altering its brain signals, taken in 1963. In the end, the technology was a dead end, largely so for political reasons where it was considered socially dangerous and unethical.
Let’s start with the relatively benign — the use of stimulation of the “pleasure center” to alleviate chronic depression, which show some promise. Even so, only about one hundred such operations have been conducted over the past fifty years. The notion of wireheading is a term from science fiction that was coined some decades back to describe people who use electrical stimulation of the “pleasure center” to achieve the absolute maximum happiness possible. As a result the wirehead often dies of neglect since the impulse to eat and drink, or indeed do anything at all, becomes insignificant compared to the ecstasy of the next jolt. The concept itself was in turn based upon studies of rats that had been implanted with electrodes in an experimental setup where by pressing a lever a the animal could self administer a jolt of supreme pleasure. The result being that they continually pressed the lever until they collapsed from exhaustion. The Human response has been similar to those lab rats pressing a lever, albeit somewhat moderated by the intelligence of the subjects. Reports from those subjects claim it is more like a massive anticipation of something pleasurable rather than pure pleasure itself. Nevertheless, it does seem to hold a massive potential for addiction.
Then we have its opposite — the so-called “pain center”. Although pain is actually a complex phenomenon at least one area has been identified as a contributor to the intensity of the experience — the dorsal posteria insula.
“We have identified the brain area likely to be responsible for the core, ‘it hurts’, experience of pain,” said Professor Irene Tracey, University of Oxford, whose team made the discovery. “Pain is a complex, multidimensional experience, which causes activity in many brain regions involved with things like attention, feeling emotions such as fear, locating where the pain is, and so on. But the dorsal posterior insula seems to be specific to the actual ‘hurt level’ of pain itself.”
Naturally nobody is reporting what happens if that area is stimulated deliberately, but one might make a reasonable guess that it would be extremely unpleasant. Conversely, inhibiting its response would presumably significantly lesson the experience of pain.
From the point of view of emotional control the Amygdala is one of the key areas. It is part of the limbic system in an area deep within the brain situated within the temporal lobes. It has a primary role in the processing of memory, decision making and emotional responses, including anxiety, fear and aggression.
In one study, electrical stimulation of the right amygdala induced negative emotions, especially fear and sadness. In contrast, stimulation of the left amygdala was able to induce either pleasant (happiness) or unpleasant (fear, anxiety, sadness) emotions. However, there is a more popular account of what temporarily depressing the response of the amygdala using high power repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) actually feels like. It was an experiment conducted at the University of Essex on the research psychologist Kevin Dutton. The aim was to damp down the parts of the brain responsible for emotion and moral reasoning in order to simulate some of the features of the psychopathic brain. It took about fifteen minutes. Dutton wrote up the experience in an article titled Psychopathy’s Double Edge published in the Chronicle of Higher Education in October 2012.
What makes this both interesting and worrying is the feeling of the induced psychological state. In his own words:
…enhancement of attentional acuity and sharpness. An insuperable feeling of heightened, polished awareness. Sure, my conscience certainly feels like it’s on ice, and my anxieties drowned with a half-dozen shots of transcranial magnetic Jack Daniel’s. But, at the same time, my whole way of being feels as if it’s been sumptuously spring-cleaned with light. My soul, or whatever you want to call it, immersed in a spiritual dishwasher. So this, I think to myself, is how it feels to be a psychopath. To cruise through life knowing that no matter what you say or do, guilt, remorse, shame, pity, fear — all those familiar, everyday warning signals that might normally light up on your psychological dashboard — no longer trouble you.
How many people, having experienced that state, would want to experience it again and again? How many might opt to try and make it permanent if that were possible? To swap the everyday nagging worries for a superhuman clarity and don’t-give-a-shit attitude?
Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS)
Next we come to a very simple technology that has received renewed attention recently, partially because it is so simple that almost anyone can try it. The idea is to pass a very low current, typically less than 2 millamps through electrodes attached to the head. The effect is that the neural tissue close to the surface area of the brain under the electrodes is either stimulated or inhibited. It’s crude, non-precise and yet has apparently useful effects that last hours after minutes of application. The arrangement of the electrodes on the head is called the montage, the most popular of which is the focus montage where the positive electrode is placed just above the left eye and back a bit, and the negative one on the right temple area. It creates a mental state that psychologists call “flow”. In such a state the person performing an activity is fully immersed in it, with a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. The “inner voice” that distracts is quieted. There are of course numerous other montages designed to facilitate learning, alleviate depression and so forth.
A famous personal account is by the journalist Sally Adee in the article Better Living Through Electrochemistry where she tried the technology coupled with an accelerated marksmanship training course, with spectacularly positive results.
The experience wasn’t simply about the easy pleasure of undeserved expertise. When the nice neuroscientists put the electrodes on me, the thing that made the earth drop out from under my feet was that for the first time in my life, everything in my head finally shut the fuck up… I only remember feeling like I had just had an excellent cup of coffee, but without the caffeine jitters. I felt clear-headed and like myself, just sharper. Calmer. Without fear and without doubt. From there on, I just spent the time waiting for a problem to appear so that I could solve it.
This is unusual in my personal experience of tDCS, but some people obviously react to a far greater degree than others. For me the focus montage was almost as good as the drug modafinil, but considerably less convenient. The point though, is that whatever tDCS can do Neuralink will be able to do in a far more effective and precise manner.
The obvious conclusion I draw from the above is that the short term aims of Neuralink are full emotional control of the individual rather than Matrix style knowledge downloading or even enhanced virtual reality experience. This would have a global social impact that would be quite comparable to the Technological Singularity, but coming from an entirely unexpected direction. Imagine if you could control your own levels of love, hate, fear, interest, intellectual focus, willpower, pain, pleasure, empathy, compassion, conscience, aggression… the list is almost endless. Or imagine if someone else could do that to you. If you are a soldier, turn down the conscience and fear, turn off pain, up the pleasure aggression and focus settings and start shooting. Or maybe you are an average person with a boring job — turn up the pleasure and focus and turn off extraneous thoughts. Unhappy in love? Turn down the depression and add in a dash of “don’t give a shit”. Or perhaps you are one of the unlucky people who suffer from anxiety or depression — switch it off.
Naturally the device in this form will initially be “sold” from a PR point of view as a medical intervention but will not stay that way for long. The first adopters, depending on nation, will likely be psychiatric patients, elite soldiers or prisoners.
The results if we have a Neuralink society? I have absolutely no idea, which is why this concept could drive a social singularity where Human behaviors would change radically almost overnight in ways we cannot imagine. What would a world of happy psychopaths with inhuman powers of concentration, freedom from fear, anxiety and self doubt with a dash of obsession be like?
Knowing all this, would I want a neuralink implant? Well, I am a Transhumanist, so the answer is “yes”, but with caveats. The major one being that the device must be under my control — not corporate control, not government control and not even control by the medical establishment. And one more thing… never buy version 1.0
A Zero State document
Finally a note. If you are feeling like you are the victim of such a “mind control” device please do NOT contact me — I cannot help you. Seek regular medical advice.