To keep pace with computers, do we have to become digitally superhuman?

Elon Musk thinks we need to merge with computers. Are we culturally ready for that?

Tesla’s Elon Musk, never one to hold back on an idea, has added another to his list: we need to start merging with our computers if we want to keep up with them:

If humans want to continue to add value to the economy, they must augment their capabilities through a “merger of biological intelligence and machine intelligence”. If we fail to do this, we’ll risk becoming “house cats” to artificial intelligence.

Does this mean more frictionless interfaces with our computing power? Or a physical cyborg-style interface with it?

The theory is that with sufficient knowledge of the neural activity in the brain it will be possible to create “neuroprosthetics” that could allow us to communicate complex ideas telepathically or give us additional cognitive (extra memory) or sensory (night vision) abilities. Musk says he’s working on an injectable mesh-like “neural lace” that fits on your brain to give it digital computing capabilities.

Ah, the cyborg option, then. The problem here is in the clause “with sufficient knowledge of the neural activity in the brain” – it’s far from clear that we have anything near the level of understanding of that to build an interface that would work reliably. Indeed, if we had the technology and the neuroscience knowledge needed, we’d be deploying things like this into those with serious disabilities or brain damage already.

A culture of cyborg concern

And, interestingly, we’ve used the idea of hybrid human/machine creatures as a boogeyman to scare children and adults for a long time. Like many children of the 70s in the UK, I grew up with a quiet horror of the idea. The Cybermen from Doctor Who stalked our nightmare, a vision of humans integrating with computers a step too far:

70s cybermen

For those a decade or so older than me, that nightmare looks more like this):

Star trek borg

A quarter of a century later, my concerns are rather more pragmatic – interfaces are two way things, and I’m not sure I want to open up my brain to potential hacking and influence by connecting it to other devices. Even if severe security measures are in place, people will try to circumvent them, because influencing the minds of others directly is just too tempting a target.

Do we need better, more fluid interfaces? Sure. That’s one of the reason both voice and invisible interfaces are so interesting – they open up two ways of triggering computing actions that are much quicker than existing models.

Surrounded by tech, not integrated with it

Indeed, as I’m writing this, I’m physically wearing three devices that could be classified as computers: my Apple Watch and two AirPods. The watch is reading biological data from me all the time, and could conceivable trigger actions based on what it reads. The AirPods are essentially computing-based modifiers of the aural environment around us. We’re already finding ways to bring computing devices closer to us – but is actually integrating them with our bodies a necessity?

Musk’s argument presupposes a number of factors, including His becoming truly conscious and the sort of integration he envisages becoming physically and neurologically possible. And we’ll probably have a much better sense of how far we can get with wearables of implicit monitoring of physical data to create more responsive computing tools long before we get there.

While there’s more than a germ of truth in Musk’s arguments – there’s also a danger of reshaping ourselves to suit the machines, rather than shaping the machines to suit us.

Image by Raíssa Ruschel and used under a Creative Commons licence