Will Humanity Truly Be Made ‘Irrelevant’ By Cyborgs?

Elon Musk, everyone’s favorite bold if panicky futurist, is at it again. This time, he’s predicting we’ll all be jamming processors into our heads to turn around data faster and more conveniently. But is he right, or is our cyborg future not as likely?

First of all, it’s worth discussing what we mean by “cyborg.” In this case, Musk is talking about somebody who has their brain directly interact with a computer. In that sense, we’re all cyborgs, really: it’s just that your smartphone interacts with your brain via your fingers instead of a neural interface. But we’re hard at work on new interfaces, mostly to assist paraplegics and individuals who’ve lost a limb with advanced prosthetics and more independence. And also to let them fly fighter jets with their minds.

What Musk is envisioning, though, is the brain moving at the speed of a computer. Computers can process at trillions of bits of data a second; humans average a poky ten, depending on who you ask. Humans make up for it with all those things football coaches call “intangibles:” Creativity, lateral thinking, heart, grit, stuff like that.

That does raise an issue, though: How does the brain talk to a computer? In the physical sense, we can install all sorts of microchips and stuff in the brain, but, for example, those prosthetics aren’t communicating with the brain directly. Instead, the user thinks about moving their arm, the chip reads those brain waves, and uses that as a signal to send commands to the prosthetic. You’re not “talking” to the chip directly so much as the chip is filling in as a middleman.

It turns out that getting overly literal computers and overly abstract humans to talk to each other is a massive pain in the neck. One of Apple’s running jokes is that its development team helped it wreck a nice beach (i.e. “recognize speech”). Apple spent decades working on Siri, and, well, anybody can tell you she’s got her flaws. In short, computers need to learn how to speak to the brain, and vice versa, in a language both understand. That does exist; it’s called a homoiconic computer language. But nobody’s quite agreed on a shared language, or even a translation program, yet.

And there is, of course, the question of the brain itself. The organ we use to understand the world around us is one of the great unexplored medical mysteries. To upgrade it, we first need to ensure we’re not breaking anything, which might take a while. Besides, it’s not clear what the upper limits of the human brain even are, intellectually; we have no idea what IQ actually measures, but whatever it measures, it’s rising fast. So, for now, we should probably refrain from jamming wires in there to see what happens. Unless it means we can control a fighter jet.

(Via The Verge)