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Why use a thumb when you have a brain?

The recent tweet by Elon Musk, foreseeing a direct interaction from mind to smartphone.

We have been used to high claims from Elon Musk, so high that seem impossible. Quite a bit of them, indeed, requires a reality check and need to be taken with much more than a grain of salt.

However, we have also seen that, may be with some downgrading and over a longe period of time, a number of his prediction turn out into reality. Hence, it is good to pay attention to his vision, since he is using that vision as a beacon for concrete implementation.

In this specific instance Elon is foreseeing (in the not distant future) the implant in the brain of a Neuralink chip, able to harvest electrical signals from over a thousands micro areas in the brain, and to use software to interpret those signals to control an external device, in this case a smartphone, with a precision and speed that may exceed the one we have using our thumb.

The tweet has been flanked by the release of the video I have included below. Please, watch it because it is amazing.  You see a monkey that has been trained to use a joystick to control he cursor and then to play Pong. The training went both ways: the monkey learnt how to move the joystick to control the cursor and the software learnt what was going on in the monkey’s brain, in terms of electrical activity picked up by two implanted Neuralink chips wirelessly connected to a computer, thus associating specific electrical activity in the brain with the “intention” to move the cursor one way or the other.

Once the software has been trained the chips and the software could control the cursor directly from the brain (or mind?) and you see in the video how good the monkey has become in playing Pong just using his brain. It is most notable the accuracy and the speed of the interaction, something that indeed supports Elon claims that in the future we would be able to establish a radio link with our smartphone. The chip in our brain and the one in the smartphone will be able to communicate with one another creating a seamless interface. Notice that, in perspective, the chip from the smartphone can send signals to the chip implanted in our brain to improve the communication effectiveness. In the video you see that this backward loop with the monkey’s brain is achieved through a straw that delivers some “good” stuff to the monkey, motivating it to stick with the game. In our case one might think of signals to the implanted chip stimulating the release of endorphins …

Plenty of lights and dark, dark shadows ahead. Of course, saying that a technology will be available does not mean it will be used. Elon is careful to highlight the positive aspects, envisaging implants to help paralysed people, and we all see the benefit there. Yet, it is a Pandora vase: once opened it is difficult to predict the outcome.
What is this connectivity could provide a real augmentation, and advantage to a person? Will there be some that will ask for the implant to be augmented? Difficult to say that this will never happen! Are we going to have an augmentation divide as today we are facing a digital divide?

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.