Neuralink: connecting computers to our brains – necessary or pathological?

Group 11

In the hyper-focused race for technical advancement, the ultimate benefit or risk of a technology is too often a foregone conclusion. Neuralink, which is estimated to begin partial implementation within five years , is a technology that would insert a chip into a human brain to connect to a computer system. It would allow control of multiple devices simply by thoughts. It’s proclaimed to offer extreme convenience, aid people with certain illnesses, and help in many other ways. At the same time, it would create extreme danger with potential disastrous consequences – including bodily injury, complete loss of privacy, and even overt manipulation and control of victims. Should Neuralink continue to be developed and used, in spite of its controversial nature? Would you want people directly connecting their brains to computers?

Neuralink, it’s the next game-changer (Ho Yuen)

It is undeniable that the implementation of Neuralink to future human life will bring tremendous advantages.

Using Neuralink to connect our brains to the internet would vastly increase the convenience and efficiency of life. According to Elon Musk’s Neuralink Corporation, the plan is to insert nearly invisible electronic threads into the human brain to build a brain-machine interface . Currently, using hands to control physical interfaces such as smartphones, keyboards and computers is significantly limited by proximity, motor neuron speed, and physiology. Using Neuralink to simply think of someone, then decide to call them, with no other action required would be the greatest evolution of the phone. There would be no need to worry about carrying or losing a smartphone or laptop. A brain with Neuralink could replace these. From an environmental ethics standpoint – with plastic islands growing in the Pacific and e-waste graveyards piling up in Africa – the right move is to significantly reduce the amount of digital waste and develop technologies like Neuralink that assist this. With the majority of the world population owning mobile phones – and that percentage increasing annually – it would be ethically utilitarian to try to provide the greatest good for the greatest number and implement this ultimate advancement that could benefit so many people.

Neuralink can also contribute to technical research. As the brain can control the computer directly, complicated processing between humans and computers is avoided . At the moment, it is common to conduct research through many different types of computer software. If one could control the computer directly by thought, many extra signals and processes could be omitted – such as the physical data input process, the programming process of user interface software, and reading data with the human eye. Hours of time could be saved by importing data from an electronic book to the brain rather than reading line by line. If virtue truly is knowledge, as the ancients believed – then Neuralink users could gain faster and greater achievement of virtuous character, thus benefitting everyone. This processing capability, combined with brain-machine control, is said to bring humans closer to the rapidly advancing abilities of supercomputers and a potential future artificial intelligence. One main argument for Neuralink is it would be unethical for humans to be vastly less capable than supercomputers and artificial intelligences – which therefore would control humans; eliminating free will. This ontological argument states the right thing to do is preserve free will by super-advancing humans to the point that interaction and involvement with a supercomputer A.I. is possible – and that Neuralink is the way to do this. The application of Neuralink could also improve medical treatments of the future. It potentially would help stimulate certain neurons in the human brain, meaning some conditions of neurodegenerative diseases could be relieved  . Elderly people commonly suffer from these diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Neuralink may assist or even replace malfunctioned neurons by inserting about 3000 electrodes into the brain for transmission of data. Moreover, since it connects a human brain to the internet, it would be able to monitor one’s health anywhere and anytime. If people were stricken by severe medical conditions, such as asphyxiation and loss of consciousness, Neuralink could call for help instantly by sending signals to someone nearby and to emergency services. Undeniably, reducing suffering and saving lives is a categorical imperative and the assistance Neuralink offers here is strongly desired.

But is Neuralink worth the risk? (Tin Hang Ng) (Harry Ng)

There are severe problems regarding the usage of Neuralink.

Electronic security is very important in this day and age, where data theft and cyberattacks increasingly disrupt finance and safety. Since the Neuralink system could be installed on a mobile app, it could be hacked . Just the same as a computer connected to the internet, infection by a virus is possible. Since Neuralink chips would be connected and controlled by the computer system, malfunction could occur with disastrous results. What if a motor-assisted person’s chip malfunctioned, causing them to lose balance and fall into a busy road? Moreover, as the system is embedded in the sensitive brain tissue, if it began to operate abnormally – such as overheating or generating electrical current – it could cause serious physical damage. Just as in cyber theft or cyberattack, a person’s neurological data could be stolen or even be manipulated, for example by emitting a particular electrical frequency that influences brainwaves. One wouldn’t be able to physically separate their bodies from these risks.

Aside from outright security, privacy is a very important aspect of human life. Even in modern computers, it is extremely hard to perfectly protect every individual’s sensitive data. This would be an even bigger issue with Neuralink. Its data may eventually include a person’s behavioral pattern, and it is hard if not impossible to regulate the monitoring of this sensitive information. Furthermore, the debate on whether to allow advertisements in the Neuralink system is heated. Firstly, people are generally annoyed and not pleased to have advertisements on phones and computers, and also the public is worried by the fact that advertisements are capable of collecting personal data – which may constitute privacy invasion. Care ethics are already jeopardized by this non-consenting invasion of privacy and sharing of unknown amounts of information with unknown third parties. With Neuralink, individuals would have potentially no control over the information gathered on them nor with whom it is shared. A care ethics argument can be made that it’s wrong to submit oneself – plus family and friends by association – to unknown parties who may exercise zero reciprocal ethical responsibility.

Health-related issues are another big problem for Neuralink. To install the nearly invisible thread into the brain, a non-medical surgery would take place. This is as dangerous as it seems. Such an invasive surgery is a very high-risk action and may cause permanent brain damage . If the person is lucky enough to have a successful surgery, another big risk after installation would be bacterial infection. If installing Neuralink became mainstream, antibiotics and risky device removal surgery capabilities would need to skyrocket. Let’s say, fortunately, everything mentioned above did not happen; maintenance is also one of the major problems for Neuralink. Should surgery be done every time maintenance is needed? Will consistent maintenance of the chip inside the brain do any harm? Lastly, it remains unanswered whether there are any side effects of long-term brain chip installation, even if it seems fine at first. With rapidly increasing population there is already a high burden on the medical community, and with the amount of diseases and injuries to treat it certainly couldn’t be wished a universal law to further overwhelm the community with a flood of nonmedical surgeries. Virtue ethics encourages bravery as a desirable mean in facing reasonable danger, but condemns recklessness as a vice. Thus, rather than subjecting oneself to such serious dangers, the virtuous person would be informed to look for alternatives. Given these issues, the chief moral argument for Neuralink should be revisited. Would supercomputers or A.I. simply have even more ability to control advanced Neuralink users? Would the greatest weapon for free will be an unlinked, pure human?

Initial Decision

We are against the further development and usage of Neuralink technology and think it should cease.

8 thoughts on “Neuralink: connecting computers to our brains – necessary or pathological?

  1. A good topic with excellent use of ethical support for both sides of the dilemma.
    You strike a good balance between the technological aspects and the ethical aspects. Keep this balance but if needed err towards the ethics. 🙂

    My initial response was not very academic. It was simply a revulsion to having an implant in my brain. I also like the idea I can put my phone down at the end of the day, or switch it off if needed.
    The aspect of reading (quote: “Hours of time could be saved by importing data from an electronic book to the brain rather than reading line by line.”) seems unrealistic. The issue isn’t reading the text but comprehending the text, for me. Also, I enjoy the physical act of holding a book. But that is the act of being a receiver, being the giver does offer advantages. I like the idea of answering e-mails quicker than having to type – although maybe I should just use voice-activated typing.
    Overall a good article and a good foundation for Assignment Two.

    1. Thanks for your comments, it is truly a challenging dilemma, compounded by the fact that the true effectiveness of the technology is not yet fully known.
      I personally am also repulsed by having a foreign object in my head and there would have to be significant advantages to even start considering it. One problem I have, especially with scientific texts, is I can understand the material but I often can’t understand it in the way it’s presented and find myself searching through different books on the same topic to find the explanation that clicks with me. If this technology could overcome that it would make a huge difference for me and save so much time I could spend using the material instead.

      You raise another interesting dilemma as well, would traditional sources of entertainment and satisfaction such as reading be eliminated by this technology, and is that something we want to do?

  2. Comments from developer, Elon Musk, on the ethics of this technology, posted courtesy of ecallaw (haha, well what he’d post if he had time excerpted from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RcYjXbSJBN8&t=345s)
    1. It helps sick people and this is ethically the right thing to do.
    2. You could use the technology to become super smart and make a ton of money, paying back the expense of installation and using it to benefit society which is ethical.
    3. Even in a benign AI scenario, humans are left behind, AI goes beyond human control, and it is wrong to create something we cannot ethically control.

  3. Comments from V3naX3na (non-student without access to the site) posted courtesy of ecallaw:

    “People understand things differently. Each person’s mind works differently, so how could they make a product that works for everyone, and isn’t it wrong to try and make everyone’s mind work the same way?”

    1. Thanks V3naX3na for the comment. Ethically I think it would be wrong to try and make everyone’s mind work the same way because there is a virtue in diversity and it’s a categorical imperative to preserve one’s own uniqueness as well as others.

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