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Weekend Briefing No. 168
Welcome to a very special edition of the Weekend Briefing. I’ve never tried this before, but this week, rather than giving you seven articles, I’m going to focus on one epic article. It turns out that Elon Musk has a new wildly ambitious company that you may have heard about called Neuralink. By way of announcing it to the world, he and his team gave multiple interviews to Tim Urban, the result is a Wait But Why post called Neuralink and the Brain’s Magical Future (5 hours 32 minutes).
36,721 – The number of words in this article.
1,509 – The number of words in this email.
214 – The number of pages this article would take up if you put it into a word doc (including the pictures). Basically… it’s a book.
Neuralink is a new company by Elon Musk which may eclipse Tesla and SpaceX in both the boldness of its engineering undertaking and the grandeur of its mission. The other two companies aim to redefine what future humans will do—Neuralink wants to redefine what future humans will be. (spoiler alert: cyborgs) (additional spoiler alert: we are already cyborgs.) This company will create a “whole-brain interface,” or a magical wizard hat—a brain interface so complete, so smooth, so biocompatible, and so high-bandwidth that it feels as much a part of you as your brain. A whole-brain interface gives your brain the ability to communicate wirelessly with the cloud, with computers, and with the brains of anyone who has a similar interface in their head. This flow of information between your brain and the outside world would be so effortless, it would feel similar to the thinking that goes on in your head today.
We Are Already Cyborgs
Wait… isn’t this turning humans into cyborgs? The thing that you probably don’t appreciate right now is that you are already a cyborg. This probably creeps you out. It creeps me out. You’re already a different creature than you would have been twenty years ago, or even ten years ago. How long do you want to be away from your phone? Your phone is as much “you” as your vocal cords or your ears or your eyes. All of these things are simply tools to move thoughts from brain to brain—so who cares if the tool is held in your hand, your throat, or your eye sockets? The digital age has made us a dual entity—a physical creature who interacts with its physical environment using its biological parts and a digital creature whose digital devices—whose digital parts—allow it to interact with the digital world. We’re already a cyborg, we already have superpowers, and we already spend a huge part of our lives in the digital world. And when you think of it like that, you realize how obvious it is to want to upgrade the medium that connects us to that world.
In next phase of humanity - the Wizard Era - we would have the ability to essentially engage in consensual telepathy. You wouldn’t need to verbalize unless you want to add a little flair to the conversation or something (laughs), but the conversation would be conceptual interaction on a level that’s difficult to conceive of right now. So, um, will everyone be able to know what I’m thinking? People won’t be able to read your thoughts—you would have to will it. If you don’t will it, it doesn’t happen. Just like if you don’t will your mouth to talk, it doesn’t talk. Phew.
All the Feels
Emotions are the quintessential example of a concept that words are poorly-equipped to accurately describe. If ten people say, “I’m sad,” it actually means ten different things. In the Wizard Era, we’ll probably learn pretty quickly that the specific emotions people feel are as unique to people as their appearance or sense of humor. Think about the impact on relationships if you could actually put yourself in your partner’s shoes. But emotional communication could also be used for things like entertainment, where a movie, say, could also project out to the audience—directly into their brain—certain feelings it wants the audience to feel as they watch.
All the Knowledge
Your brain would also have access to all the knowledge in the world, at all times. The Library of Alexandria in your head. But, not just knowledge; experiences as well. Right now, you can go on YouTube and watch a first-hand account of almost anything, for free. This would have blown George Washington’s mind—but in the Wizard Era, you’ll be able to actually experience almost anything for free. The days of fancy experiences being limited to rich people will be long over.
You will be able to move anything just by thinking it. In the Wizard Era, almost everything will be built to respond to mind control. Your car (or whatever people use for transportation at that point) will pull up to your house and your mind will open the car door. You’ll think about wanting coffee and the coffee maker will get that going. As you head to the fridge the door will open and after getting what you need it’ll close as you walk away. When it’s time for bed, you’ll decide you want the heat turned down and the lights turned off, and those systems will feel you make that decision and adjust themselves. People will play the piano with their thoughts. And do building construction. And conduct brain surgery. None of this stuff will take any effort or thought—we’ll all get very good at it and it’ll feel as automatic and subconscious as moving your eyes to read this sentence does to you now.
Elon Musk thinks it’s as only a matter of time before super-intelligent AI rises up on this planet. So, he thinks we have only one good option: to become AI. The more separate we are—the more the AI is “other”—the more likely it is to turn on us. If the AIs are all separate, vastly more intelligent than us, how do you ensure that they don’t have optimization functions that are contrary to the best interests of humanity? If we achieve tight symbiosis, the AI wouldn’t be “other”—it would be you with a relationship to your cortex analogous to the relationship your cortex has with your limbic system. We’re going to have the choice of either being left behind and being effectively useless or like a pet—you know, like a house cat or something—or eventually figuring out some way to be symbiotic and merge with AI.
This Could Get Very Dark
In the Wizard Era, people will be a lot more powerful, which is scary, because, ya know… people can be pretty terrible. You think internet trolls are bad, just imagine them with a wizard hat… not to mention terrorists and hackers. Hackers could not only steal information from your brains, but brain interfaces can also put information in. Yes, a clever hacker might be able to change your thoughts or your vote or your identity or make you want to do something terrible you normally wouldn’t ever consider. And you wouldn’t know it ever happened. You could feel strongly about voting for a candidate and a little part of you would wonder if someone manipulated your thoughts so you’d feel that way. The darkest possible scenario would be an ISIS-type organization actually influencing millions of people to join their cause by altering their thoughts. This is definitely the scariest paragraph in this post. Scared enough? Let’s move on!
When Everyone Is Superman
Physics advancements allow bad guys to make nuclear bombs. Biological advancements allow bad guys to make bio weapons. The invention of cars and planes led to crashes that kill over a million people a year. The internet enabled the spread of fake news, makes us vulnerable to cyberattack, made terrorist recruiting efforts easier, and allowed predators to flourish. And yet— Would people choose to reverse our understanding of science, go back to the days of riding horses across land and boats across the ocean, or get rid of the internet? Probably not. Musk believes that if everyone is Superman, it’s harder for any one Superman to cause harm on a mass scale—there are lots of checks and balances. And we’re less likely to lose control of AI in general because the AI on the planet will be so widely distributed and varied in its goals.
About the Weekend Briefing
Thanks for making the Weekend Briefing a part of your Saturday morning routine. I love putting it together every week and love hearing your thoughtful insights. Feel free to shoot me an email with any feedback or suggestions. If you like what you’re reading, I’d be honored if you share it with your friends. Have a restful and thoughtful weekend.