A few days back, Elon Musk’s Neuralink announced that it would soon be starting clinical trials of implanting a chip in the human brain. Musk’s ambition is to make brain-computer interfaces as simple as LASIK surgery. Last year, Neuralink implanted a chip in a monkey’s brain. Pager, the monkey, could play a video game using a joystick. Here, the Neuralink chip recorded Pager’s brain activity and sent it back to the computer for analysis.
Although fascinating, a section of people remained sceptical about the whole initiative. A year later, now, when this experiment is being extended to humans, scientists, ethicists, and activists are making their concerns very clear.
And now, as per a Fortune magazine article, the company has had internal turmoil. A number of key members have left the organisation. The ones remaining are also complaining about toxic and high work pressure environments.
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Neuralink – ambitious or gimmicky
San Francisco-based Neuralink was launched by tech wizard Elon Musk in 2016. The company recruited some of the top researchers, professors, and other professionals to work on this vision. The task at hand was to develop a coin-sized computer chip that will be implanted in a human brain by a robot surgeon. This chip will connect the brain to the computer interface and smartphones. While the broad aim of developing such a brain-computer interface (BCI) is to allow humans to be competitive with AI, Musk wants Neuralink to solve immediate problems like the treatment of Parkinson’s disease and brain ailments from depression and anxiety, dementia and even paralysis. Musk has called the AI symbiosis problem an existential threat in the past.
Neuralink would not be the first to attempt BCI; it has existed since the early 2000s. Some experts say that there are over 300,000 people who already have some neural interface like a deep brain stimulator that is used to treat Parkinson’s disease.
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What works for Neuralink is the amount of investment. Founder Elon Musk invested $100 million in the company; the company’s current valuation is an estimated $500 million, according to PitchBook. Money aside, Musk as a brand also does the trick.
The news of Musk’s plan to implant chip in the human brain has caught the whole world’s attention. However, not all are very happy about this. A Daily Beast report said that scientists have ethical concerns about this venture. One of the scientists, Dr Karola Kreitmair, assistant professor of medical history and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said that there is sufficient public discourse on the big picture implications of such technology. She also called it an “uncomfortable marriage between a company that is for-profit… and these medical interventions that hopefully are there to help people”.
Speaking to Analytics India Magazine, Kazim Rizvi, the founding director of The Dialogue, posed some poignant questions:
- Whether the ends that the technology seeks to achieve is moral, especially when differentiating the use of the tech between care provision (healthcare) and enhancing existing abilities, in the absence of medically recognised biological or cognitive deficiencies?
- Whether the means to achieve the defined ends (like healthcare) is moral, especially when the same will entail experimenting on human bodies without clarity on its long-term physical and psychological effects?
- Whether the technology will be accessible to everyone, or will we end up creating a tiered society where the poor cannot access this technology, creating a ripple effect on education, employment, and the economy?
- What does this mean for national security, and if used by soldiers in wars, how does this tech interact with the international humanitarian law?
- Do we have domestic laws or international conventions to regulate this tech, given the drastic impact on bodily privacy and scope for mass surveillance?
- Merging the human consciousness with technology has far-reaching implications, and no material enhancement (healthcare being an exception) can be morally justified by putting human life at stake if we assess the conundrum from the lens of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant.
Neuralink employees’ concerns
The spotlight here is not just on the ethical implications of this project. A new report based on testimonials from Neuralink employees indicates unfavourable working conditions. Most employees complain about Musk’s dissatisfaction with the pace of work ‘even though we were moving at unprecedented speeds’.
As per employees, the work culture at Neuralink is driven by fear. Of the eight scientists that helped Musk establish the company, only two – Dongjin Seo and Paul Merolla – are still with the company.