Is it morally acceptable for an entrepreneur to drill into the brains of humans and animals in an attempt to merge them with artificial intelligence? In this article, I’ll be exploring some of the philosophical and ethical problems related to Elon Musk’s Neuralink project, which is in the process of attempting to do just that.
Elon Musk is perhaps the leading figurehead in the space age industrial revolution. Musk is involved with a variety of companies that have one thing in common — they each aim to achieve technological innovation in a specific domain that will produce outcomes that are several orders of magnitude greater than anything else currently in existence. Musk has been described as “the real-life Iron Man”, a reference to the Marvel Comics superhero who achieved similar feats in the realm of science fiction. Some of Musk’s current projects include SpaceX, Tesla, and SolarCity, as well as Neuralink which is the subject of this article.
The Neuralink project was launched in 2016 and is run by Musk and a group of co-founders. The aim of the project, according to a paper by Musk which at the time of writing is featured on the Neuralink website homepage, is to produce “brain-machine interfaces” which will achieve “the restoration of sensory and motor function” and assist with “the treatment of neurological disorders”. According to the website Wait But Why, one of Neuralink’s long-term goals is “human enhancement” (an outcome sometimes called “transhumanism”).
Musk’s stated reason for investing in Neurolink, as reported in The Week back in July 2019, is that he fears artificial intelligence will soon become so sophisticated that human beings will be “left behind”. By merging the human brain with machines, Musk believes we may stand a chance of keeping up.
Let us consider Musk’s ambitions and the work of Neuralink from a philosophical perspective. The first thing we need to consider is what exactly the brain is, and what the role of the brain is in human experience. For many decades, scientists have viewed the brain as a kind of machine that controls the body, but I fervently dispute this. Here’s a quotation from my 2019 book entitled God’s Grand Game which explains why:
I am not convinced by the argument that the brain is a machine that powers the rest of the body, for if this were the case, what is the cause of the brain’s own activity? You might say ‘I’ am causing my brain to coordinate the millions of processes that are happening in my body. But I hope you can see the absurdity of this position — you certainly cannot explain how you are controlling your brain and bodily processes.
So perhaps your brain is controlling you? This is equally absurd. How could you attribute to a lump of grey matter the ability to write symphonies or books, to plan a holiday, or to have a relationship? Any deep-thinking person must admit there is more to human life than a series of mechanical processes somehow brought about by a mass of squishy tissue.
It is obvious that I am not controlling my brain, and my brain is not controlling me. How, then, do I explain my actions? The solution is that a spiritual being, which I like to call God, is animating all the processes that lead to my experience of my body and the world in which I exist.
(God’s Grand Game pp 18-19)
To develop this point further, I’d like to quote from another part of the same book — a chapter entitled “What is Causing Our Thoughts?” in which I state the following argument:
It is clear that when we think, there is a movement within consciousness that we are aware of. An impression in the mind seems to arise out of nothing. That impression might be a word or a sentence, or an image, or something more obscure.
An interesting point to note about thought is that it appears to be spontaneous. If you are asked to think of a fruit, for instance, then one fruit rather than another will pop into your awareness quite spontaneously (try it!). You might think ‘apple’ or ‘watermelon’ without having any particular reason for thinking of the fruit you chose. It is not necessary for you to have had an apple for breakfast, for example, or to have seen a watermelon in your local store earlier that day for you to think of those particular fruits.
It seems that we never know what our next thought will be. If I asked you to tell me what you will be thinking about in a minute or in an hour’s time, you will have no idea. We do not plan our thoughts; they arise spontaneously.
One argument for this might be that our thoughts are always linked to our needs, drives, and desires. Therefore, I might start thinking about lunch because a feeling of hunger has arisen in my body. I might start thinking about going out to a club because of a sexual urge. And in a more complex way, I might think I need to do some study because I want to achieve good grades, which will get me a good job, which will secure me a steady income, so I don’t have to worry about food and shelter in the future.
But the above explanations, which link thoughts to desires, fail to explain the often random nature of thought. Why does the theme tune to a TV show I haven’t seen for years suddenly enter my mind while I am out taking a walk? Why, when asked to name any city in the world, do I choose Prague rather than Moscow?
It doesn’t seem that we can argue that we are in control of our thoughts, so we must look for other reasons to explain why thoughts arise. I think there are only two possible explanations: either our thoughts must be determined by prior events, or they are being brought into existence by a power operating in the present moment, which is God.
Creative thought is an obvious example of how thoughts are not determined by prior events. It would be absurd if the thoughts that a composer thinks while writing a symphony could be explained by evolution, or some kind of ‘Big Bang’ event, or childhood experiences. Seeing our present-moment thoughts as the result of the past simply doesn’t make sense.
The random, unpredictable, and spontaneous nature of thought means that there is only one feasible explanation for why thoughts arise. There must be a power that is in control in the present moment, bringing our thoughts into and out of existence. That power is God.
Of course, it is not just thoughts that happen spontaneously. If we observe the unfolding of events within our consciousness, we can see that everything is happening spontaneously. Our hearts are beating spontaneously, our hair is growing spontaneously, we walk along without thinking how we walk, and we think without knowing how we think. The reason why all these things happen spontaneously is because God is doing them.
The fact that God is controlling our thoughts has very important implications for both philosophy and science. The philosophy of mind, for instance, is useless if it neglects God. Neuroscientists and other scientists have been examining the human brain for many years in order to try to understand thought. Their investigations are largely misguided because thought neither originates nor finds expression in the brain. It is people who think, rather than brains, and they do so by the power of God.
(God’s Grand Game, pp 57-60)
The problem with the Neuralink project is that it fails to take into account the spiritual aspect of existence and the involvement of God in human activity described above. I believe the work Musk is doing has the potential to create a lot of unnecessary suffering, and the flawed philosophy behind the project means it will never be able to achieve the outcomes that Musk envisages.
The Week reported in July 2019 that Neuralink has already carried out 19 surgeries on animals. I would just ask Musk to consider for a moment what such procedures and their after effects feel like to the animals. Neuralink has already carried out procedures on rats and monkeys, and it won’t be long before the company is operating on humans. This greatly saddens me, and I can foresee years of experiments that will cause pain, discomfort, and misery to sentient beings without good reason.
If Elon Musk is concerned about artificial intelligence taking over humanity, the solution is clear. Stop creating artificial intelligence that has the potential to do this. I know that from the standpoint of profit-driven capitalism putting the breaks on technological advancements may not make much sense, but from the point of view of the survival and flourishing of sentient beings on Earth, it makes perfect sense, and is absolutely critical.