Elon Musk seems like the sort of transhumanist you can trust. Sure, he wants to jam Neuralink chips into our brains so we can keep pace with the AI systems his programmers are creating. And yes, his cozy relationship with the Chinese Communist Party raises thorny questions about his true loyalty to U.S. citizens.
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“China rocks in my opinion,” Musk told the Daily Drive last summer, “whereas I see in the United States increasingly much more complacency and entitlement.” So much for national solidarity.
Still, when you hear him chat with Joe Rogan about the value of fatherhood, American liberty, domestic manufacturing, free speech, and cool cars, you can’t help but wonder if Musk — the Transhumanist Bro — might actually have your back.
On The Joe Rogan Experience #1470, the first thing Musk discussed was his newborn baby boy, affectionately named X Æ A-Xii. At first, you get the sense that the richest man in the world really does care about the future generation — at least his own portion of it. But when Rogan asked him about the joy of watching his children from a previous marriage reach adulthood, the autism that Musk publicly embraces began to break through.
“It’s great,” Musk said, “but babies are awesome. Also, I’ve spent a lot of time on AI and neural nets so you can sort of see the brain develop. An AI neural net is trying to simulate what a brain does, basically. You can sort of see it learning very quickly. You know, it’s just — wow.”
“You’re talking about the neural net,” Rogan clarified, as confused as any other normal human being listening. “You’re not talking about an actual baby.”
“I’m talking about an actual baby.”
From there, we learn about the ideal world that only an autist would dream up. It’s a world where artificial general intelligence far surpasses human intellect, forcing us to upgrade our brains in order to stay competitive. Musk famously warned that out of control AI is an existential threat to human beings. But he also seems to believe its development is inevitable. In fact, Tesla is a frontrunner in its creation, from the hyper-observant neural networks that power his autonomous vehicles to the proposed humanoid robots he plans to put into sufficiently wealthy households.
The most unnerving element of artificial general intelligence is that this hypothetical mind will be completely alien to legacy humans. “An analogy that’s often used,” Musk explained to Rogan, “is like we don’t make a submarine swim like a fish, but we take the principles of hydrodynamics and apply them to the submarine.”
In the same way, machine learning and algorithmic output is a form of cognition with similar objectives to the human mind — at least for now — but it arrives at solutions by far different cognitive pathways. As artificial intelligence teaches itself about the outside world, it develops its own “personality.” In time, this divergence will become far more pronounced. To the extent that AI will surpass human intelligence — or is believed to do so — we run the risk of creating alien minds in silico that will rule over us, or perhaps destroy us altogether.
That’s one of the core ideas behind Musk’s development of Neuralink brain implants. To survive in the coming world, we’ll have to adapt ourselves to an AI-human symbiosis. Musk insists this transformation will be “optional.” At the same time, he foresees a computer-dominated environment ruled by advanced mathematics and quantum processing. In that scenario, the only real alternative to bio-enhancement is to be crushed underfoot by the Machine.
“To chip or not to chip” is a false choice.
As with most transhumanist innovations, Neuralink brain implants will first be used to heal — then to enhance. How else do you justify such a grisly procedure?
“[The chip] would be flush with your skull,” Musk said, “so you basically take out a chunk of skull, put the Neuralink device in there. You’d insert the electrode threads very carefully into the brain and then you stitch it up. .. It can interface basically anywhere in your brain.” Stroke victims will regain their faculties, Alzheimer’s patients will recover memories, epileptic brains will be stabilized, the lame will walk, the blind will see, and so forth. Once digital brain implants have been honed out of medical necessity, the Neuralink project will move on to enhancement.
As the interview progresses, Musk and Rogan float the idea of digital telepathy. Rogan speculates this would eventually lead to a “universal language,” not unlike mathematics or sign language. However reluctant he may be to give up the time-tested enjoyments of campfires, eloquent speech, and stick-shift sports cars, Rogan thinks children would easily adapt to this alien cultural environment. Look at how quickly they take to complex video games and smartphone apps.
Musk doesn’t have these sentimental hang-ups. He predicts that digital mind-melds will occur within the next five to ten years, and he’s ready to make it happen. Like most prominent transhumanists, Musk never uses the term to describe himself. But his commitment to overcoming the human condition through technology puts him squarely in that camp.
Our faulty memories will be perfected by constant self-surveillance and digital retrieval. Our flawed cognition — at least in comparison to proposed AI systems — will be augmented by brain implants. Our mortality will be overcome by embedding our personalities in durable silicon. That which religion fails to accomplish, the theory goes, will be achieved by way of technology.
The upside of Joe Rogan’s podcast is the same as its downside. Rogan humanizes his guests for other men. Whether they’re talking about combat experience, nutritional supplements, or UFOs, you get the sense you could have a beer with these guys, like they were any other dude. Perhaps it’s just osmosis trickling down from the alpha bro, but pretty much anyone who appears on JRE seems cool. Anyone but Matthew Yglesias.