A Meeting of Minds… and Computers: What Are the Costs of Using Technology to Merge Humans with Machines?

There has been a lot of talk recently about the Singularity: the idea that we’re rapidly approaching a threshold event in history when artificial intelligence will transcend human intelligence, and the resulting transformation will lead to a new form of existence utterly different from anything that has come before. Discussions of the Singularity, however, sometimes miss the fact that there are very different ways it could happen, with different levels of likelihood.

One version that has received significant press lately is the emergence of a superhuman artificial intelligence (AI). Last year DeepMind, a Google-backed AI system, used deep learning techniques to teach itself Go, a game far more complex than chess, and then trounced world champion Lee Sedol. Prominent scientists, Stephen Hawking included, warn that the rise of self-organized machine intelligence could be the greatest existential threat facing humanity.

At the other end of the optimism spectrum, futurist Raymond Kurzweil dreams of immortality by downloading his mind and re-uploading it to new hardware after his death—a prospect he believes is closer than most people imagine, setting its date at 2045 in his bestseller The Singularity Is Near. Kurzweil’s ideas are gaining traction—he is a director of engineering at Google, and his Singularity University boasts a faculty of some of Silicon Valley’s leading entrepreneurs. But his vision may contain a fatal flaw: the human brain cannot be split, like a computer, between hardware and software. Rather, neuroscientists point out that a neuron’s biophysical makeup is intrinsically linked to its computations; the information doesn’t exist separately from its material construction.

Will humans get there first?

There is, however, another kind of Singularity that doesn’t rely on a leap of faith. Instead, it’s a predictable outcome of technological enhancements already being designed and implemented. It relies on the very fact that makes Kurzweil’s version unlikely: that human consciousness is embedded in a physical network of neurons. In this form of Singularity, human nervous systems across the world could connect with each other through the internet, permitting a new type of human superorganism to emerge.

Last month, Facebook and Elon Musk separately announced investments in technologies that could lead humanity to this outcome. Facebook announced plans for a silent speech interface using neural signal receptors that could allow users to type words into their smartphone using only their thoughts.

Billionaire Elon Musk raised the ante even further, announcing a new company, Neuralink Corporation, that aims to merge human brains with computers with the ultimate goal of enabling what Musk calls “consensual telepathy.” In this scenario, you would be able to share your thoughts and feelings with another person through a neural-computer interface. As in his other ventures, Musk is acting according to what he perceives as a grand vision for humanity. In his view, there is a race to the Singularity between humans and AI, and he wants humans to get there first, thus becoming active participants in the post-Singularity world rather than useless bystanders as AI takes over.

Speculative as these ideas may appear, the first steps down this path have already been taken. Hundreds of thousands of profoundly deaf people now hear through neural implants that use electrodes to transmit sound waves directly to the cochlear nerve. Patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease can control their tremors through deep brain stimulation, which sends electrical pulses that modulate the brain’s neural activity. Brain-controlled prosthetics are being developed to allow paralyzed patients to move artificial fingers, legs, and even cursors on a computer screen.

Currently this requires complicated surgery. However, Miguel Nicolelis, a pioneer in brain-machine interfaces, believes that by around 2030 noninvasive methods could enable people to communicate regularly with their computers using thought. Scientists have already programmed brain scanners to literally see an image someone has in their mind.

Human Superorganism?

The implications of an advanced neural-computer interface are so enormous that they challenge the imagination. People could use the interface to share ideas with each other merely by thinking them and transmitting those thoughts through a network. But the potential extends far beyond mere conceptual sharing. As technology improved, you’d be able to share your emotions, feeling tones, and physical sensations with others. Emotional responses to public events could be uploaded and spread over the internet. Intimate relationships would be utterly transformed.

It’s easy to see how the boundary lines between an individual, the computer interface, and the rest of humanity might become blurred. Once a critical mass of people is connected, would they eventually begin to identify more as a group of interconnected thoughts and sensations than as individuals? Unlike Kurzweil’s Singularity, this version would not provide immortality to any of us. It might, however, cause the emergence of a new, collective entity, a self-organized human intelligence that incorporates and reflects each of the billions of individuals comprising it, in much the same way that an ant colony—sometimes referred to as a “superorganism”—demonstrates a collective intelligence far beyond the limitations of each individual ant.

Many people might recoil from this vision, fearing the loss of individuality it might entail. However, this wouldn’t necessarily be the case. The urge to connect with each other is one of humanity’s defining characteristics. Our most crucial invention—language—is essentially a vehicle to transcend each person’s cognitive isolation. Another uniquely human capability—music—permits us to share emotional experiences in a meaningful and exquisite way. From this perspective, it’s reasonable to see the emergence of a human superorganism as another evolutionary stage that could profoundly enrich, rather than detract from, the intrinsic experience of being human.

Or a swarm of programmed drones?

However, this vision could be hijacked by the same forces that are already steering the internet into disturbing territory. Data privacy concerns, already paramount, have been exacerbated by the recent decision of the U.S. Congress to permit internet service providers to sell detailed usage data without customers’ permission. How much greater would this concern be if our very thoughts and feelings could be used as marketing fodder?

Even with the limitations of current technology, social media innovators have found ways to manipulate our hormonal responses. Pioneers in the field of “captology”—from the acronym CAPT, or “Computers As Persuasive Technology”—have learned to use what they call “hot triggers,” such as the thumbs-up icon or Like statistics, to spark micro-doses of endorphins in our brains, causing subconscious addictive behavioral loops. It is hard to imagine the power these manipulations would hold over us if they had direct access to our brains.

Then there are concerns about what kind of forces an internet of emotions might unleash. Many observers have voiced apprehension about our “post-factual” world roiled by fake news stories that spread like wildfire across the internet. If raw emotions could be transmitted across humanity like a tidal wave without requiring even false “facts” to back them up, what would this do to the political makeup of a future neurally connected society?

The issues that are hotly debated today have implications not just for how the internet will develop in the near future, but quite possibly for how humanity will evolve. Might we one day share the unimaginable experience of being part of a human superorganism while retaining individual autonomy? Or will we simply become programmed drones thinking we’re making our own choices that ultimately are driven by the objectives of corporate shareholders and unscrupulous politicians?

One thing is clear: discussions about the Singularity cannot be left to a few pioneering think tanks and billionaire entrepreneurs. The implications of these new developments are enormous. The future direction of humanity may well be at stake.