Elon Musk, Neuralink and the Creepy Wizard Hat
I read a long and interesting blog piece, Neuralink and the Brain’s Magical Future, by Tim Urban on his blog, waitbutwhy.com. Neuralink is a new company, co-founded by Elon Musk of SpaceX fame, with its goal to develop “ultra high bandwidth brain-machine interfaces to connect humans and computers”. I’ve spent the last few years investigating what the brain is and how it heals, so anything brain-related catches my attention. I am not a neuroengineer, neurologist, neurosurgeon, medical device engineer...you get the idea. My interest has blossomed from how to help my son recover from multiple TBIs, to how to help my clients recover from brain injury, to WAIT! This brain-health thing is really important to everyone. (Note: Read here about Elon Musk’s evolution from being anti-AI (artificial intelligence) to founding Neuralink. Thankfully, he is quite fearful of what future AI could do to humanity, so he helped found Open AI).
Mr. Urban starts off with this truth, that “this ridiculous-looking thing [the brain] is the most complex known object in the universe—three pounds of what neuroengineer Tim Hanson calls “one of the most information-dense, structured, and self-structuring matter known.” All while operating on only 20 watts of power (an equivalently powerful computer runs on 24,000,000 watts)”. But then Tim Urban goes on to continually refer to the brain as a machine, which it isn’t. In fact way back in the 1920s, the neuroscientist, Karl Lashley, determined that facts, skills and other things we ‘know’ are not stored in individual neurons, or in the connections between them, but in what he called “cumulative electrical wave patterns” (Doidge, 2015). This is the result of all the neurons involved in a specific activity firing together. It’s important to think that through because our cultural belief is based on this machine metaphor (also known as the IP metaphor) and it’s dead wrong.
Say you’re a rock climber (you’d be cooler if you were, bro), every time you chalk up, touch a rock face and start moving your body, the thousands (10s or 100s of thousands, we don’t know) of neurons involved in that activity start firing together so you can climb. And by repeating the activity, a rock climber creates stronger and stronger neural pathways and recruits more neurons into the activity (this is neuroplasticity), creating an even stronger electrical pattern that means ‘rock climbing’. But when the rock climber sits down to watch a movie later, ‘rock climbing’ is not activated in the brain. It’s not a solid, physical structure that exists in the brain. Enacting the skill depends on a solid physical structure (neuron and axons and whatnot), but the act itself is an electrical reality. It’s also why the brain heals the way it does - and it’s amazing. But it isn’t a machine, it’s part of an organism - us. Which poses a problem if Neuralink wants to ‘interface’ a machine into the brain organism, yes?
Say that rock climber falls off his/her bike and slams their head on the sidewalk (dude!). Brain injury. Neurons are harmed, the brain forms a seal around the injury and liquefies the damage. In fact, the damaged cells are designed to die given the right cues (apoptosis). They are extremely resilient to dying (in fact, could be called immortal) and have multiple functions to stop death, but if the injury is bad enough - they die. WHAT?! That is not how we usually imagine healing, certainly not how our body heals other tissue. But your brain knows that any neuron can be used for anything and multiple things. After a brain injury, it’s fairly easy to recruit new neurons and neural pathways to do old tasks that were lost to the injury (neuroplasticity again). In a bad injury, it can mean re-learning to walk, but the brain can relearn if enough of the physical structure is left to do the job. In a minor injury, the shift to new neurons can be almost seamless. You just have to ask the brain to do it.
See, the problem is that by perpetuating this idea that the human brain is a computer (which is a machine last time I checked) this whole ‘wizard hat’ (Tim Urban's phrase) that Elon Musk wants to build seems legit. But it’s probably impossible (now, anyway) because our brain is an organism, not a machine and, we don’t understand it very well. Want to know how sorry our understanding is? Look at fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), a technology that's been used to scan, study and diagnose brains for quite awhile now. Unfortunately, fMRI results took a big hit because a software bug persisted for years and has now cast serious questions on at least 40,000 studies on the brain. It will take a real effort to recoup what was lost. I hope Elon has his new team sorting through the bad data and discarding it. Regarding other diagnostic tools; did you notice in the movie Concussion, Dr. Omalu ended up using tiny slices of the actual brain and a microscope? How old school! Because the imaging of the time did not pick up Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). It’s still lagging because you cannot diagnose a concussion with a CT, fMRI or anything else. Fracture, yes. Bleeding, yes. Concussion, no. So how much do we really know?
Anyway, in a machine the structure (say, a car engine) and function (the car engine running) have a sharp separation, not so in an organism. What you think and do today (function) changes the brain (physical structure) over time, this could never happen with a car engine. We’ve had some success teaching computer programs to ‘learn’, so they come closer to looking like they function like we do. But the tech isn’t even close, really. Just because Zukerberg lets his Jarvis-bot entertain his baby, doesn’t make it a good idea and it certainly doesn't make Jarvis a live entity. And ‘talking’ to Siri doesn’t make the Siri program a self-structuring organism. It’s still a limited machine-program that doesn’t come close to your own inherent abilities. The parts of the brain are not static, and the functions (thoughts, experiences, actions) affect the structure in an ongoing dynamic process. It’s how long-term, toxic stress can actually shrink certain parts of the brain - rearranging structure to fit the experience of the person carrying that brain. Neuroplasticity again.
Let’s also talk about nnEMFs (non-native electro-magnetic frequencies, pretty much everything powered by humans runs on this AC-based power) and RFs (high radio frequency electromagnetic radiation emanating from cell phones, radio towers, satellites, etc). Simply put, research (so far) shows that human bodies don’t like either of these. All of our new gadgets and the wizard hat that Elon Musk wants to build use these frequencies that might be (and probably are) harmful to the human body. Take Urban’s example of how deep brain stimulation (DBS) can help the tremors of Parkinson’s Disease (PD). No one knows the long-term effects of the direct exposure of nnEMFs and RFs in the brain that occur by placing an electronic object directly in the brain. And we are just now learning that PD is probably caused by bacteria issues in the gut. Turns out the brain is deeply informed by intestinal bacteria, who knew?! This is a hopeful field of research. So the DBS treats the symptoms (but doesn’t address the disease, a big problem with Western medicine in general), and often at a steep price (see more on that later in the article).
How about this idea that brain is the overlord and commands the body to do its bidding? From Dr. Doidge’s paradigm-shifting book, The Brain’s Way of Healing, we learn that “a brain cannot think without motor function”. Wait, what? Simply, the brain evolved after the body and it is there to serve the body (you know, so we can physically survive and stuff). Without movement, some parts of the brain fall into non-use, the brain can even shrink, and slowly lose function. Additionally, the brain takes in impulses from the body, it’s not a one-way system. It's not a even a two-way system. We are sensitive to light, electro-magnetics, social interactions, the air we breathe. We are constantly responding to our environment and our own internal cues, simultaneously, all the time. In his article, Tim Urban says, “[the motor cortex is] one of the major areas of the brain in charge of our output. When a human does something, the motor cortex is almost always the one pulling the strings (at least for the physical part of the doing)”. Well Tim, kinda, not exactly. Because we are an organism, and we function in whole - unlike machines which function using pieces that work together. Exercise doesn't just make your muscles stronger, it also makes the white matter in our brain more compact and fibrous (stronger, more efficient). Moshe Feldenkrais worked out a system of body movements that help the brain heal itself and proved his work via some incredibly difficult cases. Body teaches the brain, brain reorganizes, teaches the body.
In his outstanding essay on Aeon, The Empty Brain, Robert Epstein points out that, “we are not born with: information, data, rules, software, knowledge, lexicons, representations, algorithms, programs, models, memories, images, processors, subroutines, encoders, decoders, symbols, or buffers – design elements that allow digital computers to behave somewhat intelligently. Not only are we not born with such things, we also don’t develop them – ever”. We are born with senses, reflexes and learning mechanisms. And while computers operate on a symbolic representation of the world, we operate quite differently, in the actual, non-representative world. So in case you’ve spent a tad too much time on your computer, playing games, on your phone Instagramming or programming your 3D printer - remember we live on a planet, that is ruled by laws of nature. There are no caveats to this. You cannot escape this fact. As much tech as we’ve created, we are still here on planet Earth; biological creatures with biological needs and we function as organisms.
We have used metaphors for the brain (6 different ones over the past 2,000 years) because we do not understand it. And that’s OK, it’s how we learn. But from the humors (bile! phlegm!) to levers and knobs, we haven’t really gotten it right. Yet. Our metaphor needs to evolve, get better, so the path we take forward is actually aligned with what we ARE. Maybe a place to start is looking at mycelium networks. Or trees.
Let's add a new definition to the term ‘native intelligence’, which generally means common sense. I pose that our inherent native intelligence (NI) is the complete set of capacities we are born with - the entire spectrum of possible human capacity - expressed in as many ways as there are people. I will make the claim here that we haven’t really explored or potentialized our own NI, and to go a step further, we are reducing our own capacity right now - making the future of AI (which I call UI, unnatural intelligence) not just a sci-fi dream but necessary. A self-fulfilling prophecy! Did you know that a human toddler’s screen time is linked to slower language development (link below)? Humans and nature had already worked out an awesome way to learn language and it wasn’t from a screen. Our big uptick in technology use is causing a pandemic of sleep problems, weight gain and lower social-emotional functioning. It’s not too hard to imagine a future where physically and mentally unhealthy humans that would have never survived in the past are propped up by pharmaceuticals and UI, not for optimization but because we forgot how to be fully human, aligned with the laws of the planet, digging deep into our own NI.
These newly augmented humans are not super-beings, like we imagine when we think of cyborgs - cool, super-intelligent, vibrant, machine-beings. But cyborgs they are. Elon Musk even says so (so it has to be true); “you’re already a different creature than you would have been 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago. I think people — they’re already kind of merged with their phone and their laptop and their applications and everything”. But Mr. Musk is thinking about the super-intelligent, awesome cyborgs, not what is readily observable in our culture right now. This may already be headed in a direction we haven’t considered. Modern humans interact less and less with the planet, ignoring the laws of biology which insist that a healthy human have plenty of sunlight, clean air, dark nights, healthy, unpolluted foods and fats, lots of physical movement and very close relationships with other humans, creatures and maybe even plants (biophilia). This is how we got so powerful, so successful. Sadly, while the technauts plan an incredible future (haven’t they always?), modernized humans are less and less healthy, with skyrocketing rates of disease, including stuff we don’t understand, like autism. Modern (especially W.E.I.R.D - Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) humans are mostly overweight (74% in the U.S.) if not obese, they are sedentary, and eat a diet high in sugar and chemicals, spend very little time outside and the brain is damaged by this sorry state of affairs. The brain is deeply affected by modern disease, like diabetes (being a very sugar-sensitive organ, this makes sense). It’s also sensitive to toxins and we have a big problem with chemicals. Glyphosate (RoundUp) is particularly neurotoxic and it likes to bind with aluminum causing a big immunoexcitotoxicity event in the brain that can be next-to-impossible to calm down. In fact, many modern humans may be suffering from Diminished Brain Resilience Syndrome (DBR) (Morley and Seneff). Let’s add exposure to nnEMFs and RFs with a we-don’t-know outcome. And despite the fact there are 7.5 billion of us, modern humans report being lonely, and have high suicide rates. What is our current answer to this? Drugs, surgery, technology, ineffective institutions and entertainment (distraction). Some modern humans wouldn’t have lasted a week 15,000 years ago, but are augmented now and so they 'survive', just not in that cool, cyborg way we all imaged.
The concept behind Neuralink is “a super-advanced concept where essentially all the neurons in your brain are able to communicate seamlessly with the outside world”. And by outside world, Neuralink means the digital world. But hey, we already do this, just with the natural world (remember, Earth?), not the built world. Our brain is perfectly built to navigate the actual world. But the human-built world of computers, televisions, cell phones, satellites, smart buildings or businesses we don’t navigate so well. Our health and social lives suffer the more digitized we get, and I am not sure how closely Neuralink is even looking at our need to make this leap (see Ada Palmer’s work to understand how progress destroys what is before we know if the progress we are creating will even make a better future).
Neuralink aims to “...bring something to market that helps with certain severe brain injuries (stroke, cancer lesion, congenital) in about four years”. Cool - I hope you do! Please show me the awesome tech-based answer we have to concussion, TBI and post-concussion syndrome right now! Because with 1.6 - 3.8 million (and that doesn’t include the military) concussions per year - we should at least have diagnostic tools for concussion. Oh, we don’t have that? But we are going to make a wizard helmet that can interface the entire brain with the world of computers here ASAP? Hmmmmm...
Neuralink expects this interface to be an implantable chip of some sort. Not a helmet at all, Tim Urban, but a creepy brain chip. Let’s refer back to the problem with fMRI software, the constant bugs they are fixing in your current smartphone and the issue with exposing humans to a ton of nnEMFs and RFs. What if the implantable chip has a recall because some of the rare earth metals turn out to be toxic to the brain? What if it leaks? Will it be the DAPL of the brain? Neuralink co-founder Flip Sabes said, “we have deep brain stimulation [DBS] to alleviate the symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease, we have early trials of chips to restore vision, we have the cochlear implant—so to us it doesn’t seem like that big of a stretch to put devices into a brain to read information out and to read information back in”. Again, Mr. Sabes misses the point that PD is probably preventable and definitely treatable via bacteria therapy. Dr. Perlmutter (one of his books is Grain Brain) has been on this gut-brain link for a long time.
Also, (and this is crucial) the number one rule in new tech is never talk about how other tech has failed. Mr. Sabes mentions cochlear implants, which is a piece of technology that has serious side effects when it doesn't work (the total failure rate is about 3%, which is pretty damn good for tech). Possible issues with these implants are loss of hearing (that seems ironic), nerve damage, balance issues, ringing in the ears and (predictably) leaking of fluid from the brain. Yikes. The risks for deep brain stimulation (DBS) are as high as the risk of brain surgery (um, because it is brain surgery). There is also a 20% hardware failure rate in DBS treatments leading to “prolonged antibiotics, in-patient hospitalization, repeat surgery” (Carole, et al, below). There are zero studies that I could find regarding the high nnEMF/RF exposure DBS patients endure (multiple MRIs - not to mention the effects of the actual hardware). Did you catch the irony that malfunctions of DBS, aiming to control PD symptoms, lead to long-term antibiotic use (which destroys good bacteria along with bad). Because PD stems from gut dysbiosis, this is a tragically ironic state of affairs. This is where tech fails miserably - the religious belief that some piece of machinery can deliver us from illness, actually creating more illness. The people developing tech and Western medicine (in general) don't have a great understanding of how we actually operate and so our paths to healing are littered with massive, horrific mistakes. How about all that time we spent not understanding germs (childbed fever anyone?)? What about the emerging proof that dietary intake of sugar is at the root of heart disease, not fat? And now more information is coming out that statins are really, really bad for your brain. What about the link between artificial light at night and breast cancer. Obsolete medical theories abound, so why are we always so dang confident we've got the final answer?
Mr. Sabes goes on to further blow my mind (pun intended) by saying “if it were a prerequisite to understand the brain in order to interact with the brain in a substantive way, we’d have trouble. But it’s possible to decode all of those things in the brain without truly understanding the dynamics of the computation in the brain”. So basically, we can put all kinds of electronics and crap in the brain, but we don’t really need to know how it works (the brain doesn’t ‘compute’ being the first thing he is OK not understanding). Mr. Sabes, please see above notes on obsolete medical theories. The reason why we do need to understand is that when we don't, we hurt people. 'Can we do it?" always needs to be accompanied by 'should we do it'?
Finally, Mr. Urban notes another big problem in his blog: “...biocompatibility. Delicate electronics tend to not do well inside a jello ball. And the human body tends to not like having foreign objects in it. But the brain interfaces of the future are intended to last forever without any problems. This means that the device will likely need to be hermetically sealed and robust enough to survive decades of the oozing and shifting of the neurons around it. And the brain—which treats today’s devices like invaders and eventually covers them in scar tissue—will need to somehow be tricked into thinking the device is just a normal brain part doing its thing”.
Tech that lasts forever? Really? I just spent 2 hours on the phone with Verizon and have to restart my modem 2-3 times a day. Just for a reference point on how ‘forever’ tech is now.
The brain doesn’t really make scar tissue (it creates lesions), not like your arm would anyway. It liquefies damaged tissues, forms a seal of glial cells around the damaged area and turns on the brain’s very interesting immune system.
This process (#2) is what causes symptoms in people who have brain injury. And because people are very neuro-individual, it is next-to-impossible to predict reactions from person-to-person or even injury-to-injury. We aren't machines, so we cannot assume that all people could get a chip implant in the same area of the brain and all have the same reaction.
Immunoexcitotoxicity is the result of the brain-immune response and it can kill other areas of the brain (check out secondary progression in TBI for examples). When we think of neuroplasticity we imagine the brain being flexible in learning or re-learning, but neuroplasticity can also be seen in action when damaged neurons recruit other neurons to die.
I think it’s time to use our B.R.A.I.N. It’s a simple acronym to assist in making decisions. What are the, benefits, risks and alternatives? Do I need more information? What does my intuition say? Should I do this now? Not now? Never?
Now? Not now? Never?
Using this tool, I would say there are possible benefits (unknown at this time), definite risks, many alternatives, we need more information, my intuition is screaming NO! (thus the long blog). I would say not now, and maybe never. Maybe.
And to put a finer point on it, let’s be clear as to how high-level, powerful people are thinking about these next-level technologies, and more specifically about you and me. Elon Musk said, “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”. I’m sorry, what? Left behind like a useless pet! That’s an impressive jump. So if only half of the world’s population today even have access to the internet (which has gotten pretty damn cheap and accessible). More people have a cell phone (but not smartphones) or access to another person’s cell phone (possibly around 6 billion). DBS costs between $30,000 and $50,000 and it’s usually covered by insurance because it’s for a disease. Neuralink will not be covered. Now let’s imagine that when this impossible brain-chip is finally ready it will cost an incredible amount of money and only a very few and privileged people will have access to it. Making them, supposedly, even more superhuman and ultra-powerful (but also maybe giving them terrible side-effects and multiple surgeries). So by his own statement the rest of humanity will be “useless pets” which smacks a little too close to ‘not-human’, ‘slave’, or maybe a ‘a lower life form’. Maureen Dowd, in her Vanity Fair (below) piece on Musk says, “...there’s a creepy feeling underneath it all, a sense that we’re the mice in their experiments, that they regard us humans as Betamaxes or eight-tracks, old technology that will soon be discarded so that they can get on to enjoying their sleek new world”.
Look at nature - flowers, black holes, the ocean, animals hunting, landscapes, the moon, clouds - it’s infinite. From the dinosaurs to meteors, glow-in-the-dark fish to panthers, water in all its forms, weather, outer space and the brain of a human being, nature is downright insanely creative. We are a part of that. Our NI is not limited, we do not have to merge with machines to move forward into a bright future, and we may well be better off without a creepy brain chip. We have our own magic, we just need to move towards actualizing more of what we are already.
Supportive reading, in no helpful order:
Neuralink and the Brain’s Magical Future - http://waitbutwhy.com/2017/04/neuralink.html
Your brain is not a machine -
fMRI has a serious problem -
nnEMFs are not good for human brains -
Your brain is not an overlord to the body, quite the opposite really -The Brain’s Way of Healing, by Dr. Norman Doidge
Exercise and your brain -
Metaphors of the brain - In Our Own Image, George Zarkadakis
Babies, screentime and language -
Maybe tech isn’t that great -
A tiny bit on nnEMFs and RFs -
Oh, and artificial light -
Deep Brain Stimulation Problems -
Just four examples of how pharmaceuticals are often dangerous (at least as often as they are helpful), used off-label by a multitude of physicians and have consequences that are never studied:
And Statins - http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/827675
And Cytotec - https://www.midwiferytoday.com/articles/cytotec.asp
And for a deep dive, check out the implications of Glyphosate and aluminum exposure (as well as other issues) related to Diminished Brain Resilience Syndrome - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4093745/
Vanity Fair piece on Musk - http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2017/03/elon-musk-billion-dollar-crusade-to-stop-ai-space-x
© - Jennifer Aguilar - 2017 - All Rights Reserved