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The AI Mind-Merge Vision That Silicon Valley Won’t Give Up

Elon Musk and Sam Altman are adamant that our brains must become one with artificial intelligence if we don’t want it to subjugate us.

As robots learn faster than ever, do humans need new ways to keep up?

That's certainly what Elon Musk seems to think. In a long feature published this week, Vanity Fair reminds us that the Tesla and SpaceX CEO doesn’t just think about moving people in bold new ways—he’s also deeply concerned about the impact of artificial intelligence on humankind. In 2014, the great man famously declared that AI was humankind's “biggest existential threat,” referring to the push to build general intelligence AI as comparable to “summoning the demon.”

He is not alone. Speaking at an event in London on Monday, which MIT Technology Review attended, Y Combinator president Sam Altman voiced similar worries. “If you have AIs and humans, and they’re both trying to enslave each other because they both want the same thing, which is to be a dominant species in the universe, that’s bad,” he mused. “It’s a recipe for conflict every time.”

For Musk, the solution is to embrace the AI rather than fight it. His vision is for a “symbiosis with machines,” enabled by inserting what he calls a neural lace into the brain. This device, he has said, would overcome the fundamental input-output limitation of puny human hardware. As our own Antonio Regalado has pointed out, humans can only transmit 40 bits per second of information when speaking, which Musk has called “ridiculously slow” compared to data rates used in computing.

The Wall Street Journal now reports that he’s established a new company, called Neuralink, to work on this kind of problem. Details are scant, but the company has brain implant and neuroscience specialists on its staff, and the newspaper says that it will initially aim to develop “implants to treat intractable brain disorders.” Further down the line, though, it may offer a mesh of tiny brain electrodes that would allow us to buddy up with an AI.

Neuralink will join a cadre of academics and private companies that have been working on developing brain implants for decades, with the hope of doing everything from curing paralysis to decoding speech. Still, entrepreneur Bryan Johnson is perhaps a lesson in what happens when technologists suddenly decide to enter this particular sector: last year Johnson started Kernel, a company trying to develop a similar kind of brain-computer interface, but so far the project hasn’t been going well.

There are other approaches to the mind meld being considered in Silicon Valley, though. Altman argues that a merge could take a form “anywhere from plugging electrodes into our brain and literally merging them, to uploading our brains to a computer, or just everyone having their own little chatbot that becomes an extension of their world.”

As he sees it, the exact system being used isn’t so important as Musk might argue—Altman simply thinks that we require some engineering to make sure “that we’re one thing,” so that that it’s “not us versus AI.” Put like that, it sounds almost sensible.

(Read more: Vanity Fair, Wall Street Journal, “The Entrepreneur with the $100 Million Plan to Link Brains to Computers,” “Reversing Paralysis,” “Tech’s Enduring Great-Man Myth”)

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