After intense anticipation, Elon Musk recently announced a new neurotechnology startup called Neuralink. Initially the company will make neural implants to treat neurodegenerative diseases. But eventually, it intends to develop brain-computer interfaces that merge the human mind with software.
Electric cars, giant batteries, trains that zip through a vacuum tube, and reusable rockets are all parts of Musk’s vast vision to help mitigate global climate change and enable interstellar colonization. Now this new venture might ultimately help artificially enhance biological human intelligence. Musk claims that only such a symbiosis between machine and mind can save humanity from artificial general intelligence, which he worries could eventually otherwise render humans obsolete. Human-brain interfaces, such as the ones that Neuralink will develop, only exist in scientific fiction at the moment. And in fact Musk was inspired by sci-fi author Iain Banks’s Culture series. He refers to the neurotechnology as a “neural lace.”
But, Musk is not the only entrepreneur who believes neurotechnology is the next frontier of disruptive innovation. Bryan Johnson, who started the online payments company Braintree and sold it to PayPal, last year invested $100 million into Kernel, another startup founded to link human brains with computers. Recently, Facebook announced at the company’s F8 developer conference that in two years the social network expects to have developed brain-computer interface systems that translate neural activity into digital signals. It wants users to be able to directly “share” their thoughts, or receive messages through their skin.
As expected, Musk’s Neuralink, and other such sensational announcements about brain-computer-interface ventures generate a lot of buzz. Because of this, they attract plenty of criticism that dismisses neural laces, or Facebook skullcaps, as pure hype. Critics are right in stressing that such a sci-fi inspired merging of human brains and computers will not only face massive technological risks but also extraordinary scientific challenges. Leading scientists working on neuroprosthetics and neuroengineering caution that research and development of such brain implants will take lots of time, at best, and are fundamentally burdened by deep scientific uncertainties. Not only are the invasive brain-surgery techniques for implanting tech into human brains inherently risky, our scientific understanding of basic neural activity is still for the most part simply nonexistent.
Nevertheless, dismissing neural laces or related brain-computer interface technology as science fiction and hype misses a substantial point. Hype is often not a bug of radical technological innovation, but a feature. Many technological revolutions of the past have been funded with the help of manias and hype. Hype is often decoupled from expectations of financial return. That way it not only increases the willingness of entrepreneurs, employees, and investors to take risks, but also mobilizes the vast amounts of capital sometimes necessary to fund bleeding edge technologies.
But that’s worth it, since such technologies might later be able to transform entire industries, economies, and societies. Take the Internet boom of the early 2000s as an example. When the dotcom bubble burst, many investors lost their investments—almost $5 trillion in market valuation disappeared. But it was precisely this hype about the internet, and the endless opportunities it represented, that freed up the capital needed to build the necessary technological infrastructure. Many dotcom-startups collapsed, but in the end the vision about the transformative capabilities of the internet, which fueled the hype, was justified.
Similarly, it’s easy to dismiss neural laces, the colonization of space or the scientific quest for immortality merely as billionaire fantasies. But these bold visions of the future and the hype they generate are necessary for radical technological innovation. Of course, hype can negatively affect certain emerging technologies or scientific fields. As the case of Rocket AI shows—a fake artificial intelligence startup that was founded to expose the problem of the current AI mania—hype can definitively divert attention and investments away from the serious scientific research and entrepreneurial activity needed to solve problems in a given field.
But in the case of Neuralink, lots of other attention and capital will presumably flow to brain-computer-interface technologies and scientific research at the intersection of neurobiology, engineering, and medicine because of the attention paid to Musk’s startup. This will probably result in novel and unanticipated technologies and breakthroughs. In turn, those could spill over to benefit other technologies, scientific fields, industries, and society. Even if Neuralink ultimately fails to develop its neural lace, we need such determinant visions of the future. That’s true even if the visions are detached from quantifiable expectations of economic returns, or from present science. Otherwise we won’t get the scientific breakthroughs or technological innovations we need for human progress.