Technology is all around us. From the cars we drive to work in to the computers we spend our days glued to and the machinations that keep our global infrastructure in check. It's an unavoidable part of all our lives whether we want it to be or not. As a species we appear to have adapted to this brave new frontier rather well, indeed, chances are you're reading this very article on your super-powered smartphone or tablet. Indeed we seem to have assimilated these devices in an almost cyborg like manner to the extent that you'll rarely see a person under the age of 70 without a 'device' of some description on their person. We've become a species obsessed with constantly 'upgrading' to the next best piece of equipment, but are we ready to upgrade ourselves? According to Elon Musk, we might not have a choice. The Tesla founder argues that humans will need to digitally enhance their brains if they are to remain relevant in a future filled with artificial intelligences.
Speaking at the World Government Summit in Dubai earlier this month, Musk said that enhancements were necessary so that humans could keep up with computers. He explains: “Over time, I think we will probably see a closer merger of biological intelligence and digital intelligence. It's mostly about the bandwidth, the speed of the connection between your brain and the digital version of yourself, particularly output.” Musk, who is notoriously fond of rather grandiose proclamations, explained that computers were able to communicate at “a trillion bits per second,” whilst humans are limited by our current methods of communication (speaking, basically) to just 10 bits per second. When you put it that way it does sound a little pathetic. This also means that (and here's the scary part), once a general AI is created that's capable of performing the wide range of traditionally human intellectual tasks, then we risk becoming “irrelevant.”
Elon Musk (right) speaking with Mohammed Al-Gergawi (left), the Minister of Cabinet Affairs for the UAE Government at the 2017 World Government Summit
Musk was, however, hopeful that by essentially merging ourselves with the machines and becoming cyborgs, we could theoretically delay our own irrelevance. He said: “Some high bandwidth interface to the brain will be something that helps achieve a symbiosis between human and machine intelligence and maybe solves the control problem and the usefulness problem.” If it all sounds like the prologue to a dystopian science fiction novel to you then you're not alone, but take into account that Musk is fond of making grand proclamations. That being said, the billionaire's previous predictions for the future have included that human driving will be outlawed, which is a proposition that's looking increasingly possible given the recent advancements in self-driving technology.
As far as the how is concerned when it comes to cyborg tech, it's been theorised that human-computer communication might be enabled by neural lace woven into the brain, something which Musk, according to his Twitter account, is also working on. At any rate, while any advanced human/machine cyborg technology is still conceptual, it could be seen as an extension of contemporary prosthetics that are able to be controlled via electrical signals from the brain. The first officially recognised human cyborg, Neil Harbisson, for example, wears a head-mounted antenna attached to a chip at the back of his skull that allows him to perceive colours through sound. Harbisson has said that “Instead of using technology or wearing technology constantly, we will start becoming technology,” and refers to the cyborg movement as “a very exciting moment in history that will allow us to perceive reality in a greater way.”
Neil Harbisson, the world's First Official Cyborg
Musk, whose illuminating talk at the World Government Summit (which you can watch yourselves in full below) also touched on the reality of job losses due to automation and the necessity of a universal basic income to protect people as a result, has also set some ambitious targets for his own companies. He has set a goal for all Tesla cars to be completely driverless in 2018 and has said that SpaceX will begin manned missions to Mars in 2022 and will even connect Mars to the internet! He is, when all is said and done, something of a dreamer, but these are dreams that could feasibly come true and in our lifetimes. He's also probably one of the most fascinating men in the world, so anything he has to say, I'll always be ready and willing to listen, even if it is more than a little bit terrifying!
Benjamin Hiorns is a freelance writer and struggling musician from Kidderminster in the UK.