I hope Elon Musk and Bryan Johnson can accelerate the path to brain implants: Ramez Naam

Tyagarajan S March 30, 2017 8 min

Ramez Naam is an award winning science fiction author besides being a computer scientist, futurist, angel investor, and an award-winning author of non-fiction. Naam also lectures at the Singularity University on topics like energy, environment, and innovation.

Naam’s cyberpunk thriller trilogy (Nexus, Crux and Apex) deal with “human enhancement”, a topic that has now entered popular discourse thanks to Elon Musk. It has won many accolades including winning the Prometheus Award, has been shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award and most importantly, won the Philip K Dick award (for Apex).

Despite playing on the fear of things going wrong generously in his novels (the first chapter of Apex  is  ’How the world ends’), Naam is an optimist when it comes to technology and the future it holds for us. Before the upcoming SingularityU India Summit (in association with INK), I caught up with him for a short chat on brain-embeds, the cost of energy and the impact of exponential technologies on our planet.

Elon Musk has just announced Nuralink. When can we expect to see a human fully connected to a digital mesh?

It’s inevitable, but will take a while. Look, we are already seeing the first people have some sort of digital connection with their brain, although for specific reasons. About 2,00,000 people already have cochlear implants which sends digital inputs directly into their auditory nerve. We already have approval for bionic eyes, where digital information is being input directly into the retina. There are implants that help paralysed folks move by sending signals directly into the motor cortex of the brain. We have the proof of concepts that it can be done.

Ramez Naam is an award winning science fiction author, besides being a computer scientist, futurist, angel investor

Today, it still sounds like science fiction  —  the kind of science fiction I’ve written. But, medical innovations tend to be slower than technology  —  it is likely to be a multi-decade process before we get to the highest quality implants  

We now have two wealthy private individuals, Elon Musk and Bryan Johnson, who have founded companies in the last year  —  Nuralink and Kernel  —  to pursue this. Today, it still sounds like science fiction  —  the kind of science fiction I’ve written. But, medical innovations tend to be slower than technology  —  it is likely to be a multi-decade process before we get to the highest quality implants.

What would be some things to watch out for as this develops? What is the key problem to solve?

There are two things to watch out for. The first is how many neurons can you connect with. The brain is the most complex object in the universe. There are 400 billion stars in the Milky Way. Compare that with 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion connections between them. The most complex implants we have today are on the order of 100 electrodes. So the brain is a billion times more complex than the interfaces we have. Based on current path and speed of research, wiring up our brain is not something that can happen before 2100.

I hope that Musk’s Nuralink and Johnson’s Kernel are going to bend that curve and accelerate how fast the sophistication of these implants improve.

There are two things to watch out for. The first is how many neurons can you connect with… The second big hurdle to overcome is connecting our brain with invasive surgeries  

The second big hurdle to overcome is connecting our brain with invasive surgeries. Right now, putting these systems in the brain requires cutting open the skull and putting an array of electrodes on the surface of the brain and pushing them into the tissue  —  sometimes you have bleeding and aneurism. Can we get to a point where we have less invasive ways to do this  —  instead of surgery we inject via syringe, for instance.

That’s the technology and science. What about our society and culture? Will we accept these changes readily or will there be resistance?

Brain implants may offer some unique benefits. We’d get to modify our sleep patterns for better rest and restoration, for example. But the biggest impact of computing has been our ability to increasingly interface and communicate with one another. We are becoming a culture of constant communication and interfacing with each other. Brain implants will take it to the next level.

Already, we have embraced it quite readily already. But brain implants will provide us with the ability to directly communicate what we are seeing, what we imagine, our memories, our senses. It fulfils a basic urge that’s core to us —  the need to communicate and be social. We will do that quite readily.

What about the fears, like privacy for instance?

Privacy is a huge issue. But it’s not just privacy. Humanity has never made a secure system ever. So, there’s no guarantee that this new class of technology will be fully secure.

Can you get hacked? Can you get popup-ads in your brain? Can the NSA or the government spy on you? Can a malware crash your brain. Every issue that we face with our connected computing systems today, we’ll likely see those getting bigger. We don’t really have a foolproof solution here  

Can you get hacked? Can you get popup-ads in your brain? Can the NSA or the government spy on you? Can a malware crash your brain. Every issue that we face with our connected computing systems today, we’ll likely see those getting bigger. We don’t really have a foolproof solution here.

That sounds scary! Will it be the dystopia that we read in science fiction (including your own, partly) then?

Science fiction has to show things going wrong for the plot to be exciting. Every new technology causes problems, but when you look at our history, technology has been good to us on a net basis. We will have our share of catastrophes, accidents, abuses and crimes in this new world but in totality, we will end up with a better world.

How are you so optimistic?

Just look at the facts. The last 40 years have seen the largest poverty reduction and largest upliftment of people on earth and India has been a big beneficiary. Technology has played a key role in it. That is the source of optimism. We have a lot of anxiety about the future, but it’s often biased and not based on real facts.

Specific to India, there’s a fear that these exponential technologies, especially AI (artificial intelligence) and automation, will cause massive job losses. We have more than a million new job aspirants every month but if jobs aren’t available, the social order will collapse, won’t it?

‘Apex’, Ramez Naam’s third novel from the ‘Nexus’ trilogy, has won the Philip K Dick award

It’s possible that AI and automation will eat our jobs. But this is not a new fear. For two centuries we’ve been predicting that automation will steal jobs — right from the mechanical loom. But what happened? With the step change in technology the cost drops, demand increases exponentially and as a result opportunities increase. Sure, a lot of existing jobs will be destroyed  —  there will be fewer truck drivers in the future. But, a lot of new jobs will be created.

Will it happen fast enough? Or will we have a period of churn?

I think the real question is  —  will people have the right skills to get the new jobs? We should be putting the effort in educating kids for that. Why can’t the same exponential technology, like AI, offer personalised tutoring and train for kids on specific skills that will be relevant and help them get the right job. I think the productive way to approach any technology led disruption is to think about how we can develop solutions to tackle it using the same technology.

I think the real question is  —  will people have the right skills to get the new jobs? We should be putting the effort in educating kids for that  

You’ve spoken extensively about clean energy and how its cost are dropping exponentially. I have a slightly tangential question  —  will the cost of energy prices dropping create a deflationary world as some are predicting?

Energy is only about 10% of world GDP. Even if energy cost per unit is dropping that doesn’t mean that the economy will deflate (shrink). Costs going down is a very good thing for consumers who will buy more and this demand increase will grow the economy.

Did Moore’s Law deflate the technology industry? It just keeps growing. Energy is something similar. Cheap energy can open up so many avenues for us.

For instance, billions of people don’t have access to clean water. Today, energy is half the cost for a lot of desalination plants. When the cost of energy drops, we will be able to generate clean water more readily.

What are some of the exponential technology you are betting on? Where do you see costs dropping and adoption increasing massively?

Solar and wind energy costs will be continue to drop exponentially. They will play a major role in cleaning up our energy grids.

Energy storage is another area. We normally talk about Li-ion batteries but there are other energy storage technologies that hasn’t gotten popular yet. We will soon see them emerging into the mainstream.

But I think what will really shock people is electric vehicles. Ultimately, electric vehicles will become substantially cheaper and that will bring a huge transition in transportation.

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