Silicon Telepathy

Phil Jones

Elon Musk claims to believe that in ten years speech will be obsolete. Tiny chips planted in the human brain will instead allow humans to communicate entirely with their minds. Never one to shy away from a grandiose proclamation, Musk describes his latest venture, Neuralink, as ‘conceptual telepathy’. ‘There’s a lot of information loss when compressing a complex concept into words,’ he explained recently on The Joe Rogan Experience. The ‘link’ promises to erase such inefficiencies by removing speech from the equation. But such reasoning is only compelling if you think smooth communication is the sole purpose of language. Musk says that humans will soon speak only ‘for sentimental reasons’.

For months he has been promoting Neuralink through a series of bizarre stunts. In May, he released a video of a rhesus monkey implanted with the chip playing the video game Pong. This came after a video of a pig wandering around a pen in a brightly lit conference room, eating and sniffing straw, while an audience tracked its neural activity on a bleeping monitor.

To his boosters, Neuralink is more evidence of Musk’s genius. To his critics, it’s another vanity project destined for failure. Musk may paint himself as a brave pioneer, but versions of the technology have been around for nearly 150 years. Scientists were recording brain signals in 1868, and they started to hook the brain up using inlying electrodes in the 1950s. Musk’s link is less a miraculous breakthrough than the steady plod of technological progress.

The link itself is a tiny chip, which lodges in the skull and connects to electrode threads that are pulled across the brain. It compresses information gathered by the electrodes and identifies patterns by recording spikes of electrical activity generated by firing neurons. It then transforms the chaotic din of a ‘live’ brain into the gentle hum of a digital signal, clear enough to be transmitted by an interface such as Bluetooth.

Musk invented none of these technologies. But his ambition has always been something else, closer to the ‘science’ of mass telepathy that emerged in early Soviet Russia. The Soviet government was serious about the paranormal. There was an entire programme at Leningrad State University in ‘Biological Communication’. Efforts to communicate telepathically guided several of the government’s first cultural ventures too, including several early sound films: ‘electro acoustic telepathy’ promised to convey subliminal messages from the Soviet state to the audience. The Ruler of the World, a novel by Alexander Belyaev serialised in the Krasnaya Gazeta between 1926 and 1929, imagined a psychotronic machine for reading minds and automating citizen behaviour. It was apparently taken seriously by the state as a future possibility.

In his fascinating book on these experiments, Homo Sovieticus, Wladimir Velminski reveals a world of hypnotic state broadcasts, telekinetic radios and a laboratory known as the Aurathron, set up to practise mind control on dogs – not dissimilar to Musk’s experiments on monkeys and pigs. The book documents the peculiar mysticism that took hold of the Soviet state as the economy collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions.The strangest of these experiments took place just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. To calm the panicked populace, the Politburo beamed the celebrity psychic Anatoly Kashpirovsky into the nation’s living-rooms. Few viewers – if any – were actually hypnotised by the broadcast, but many complained of poor mental health in the years that followed.

It’s reasonable to wonder whether similar problems might hamper Neuralink. Musk has repeatedly overestimated his ability to deliver on his visions for the future, missing production targets he sets for himself at Tesla, and manufacturing a high number of vehicles with serious defects. The Boring Company, which aims to ‘solve the problem of soul-destroying traffic’ by blasting pods full of commuters around underground tunnels, has been repeatedly set back by engineering and urban planning problems. Musk says he remains ‘highly confident’ that SpaceX will take humans to Mars by 2026, though the grounds for his confidence are mysterious. Undeterred by his growing list of failures, credulous pundits repeat Musk’s lofty speculations as though they were already reality.

Venture capital in Silicon Valley tends to follow the hype. Whether the technology fulfils its promise may not matter. Even in its present form, the Neuralink chip can record brain activity and capture potentially valuable neurological data that is otherwise challenging to extract. ‘It’s sort of like if your phone went in your brain,’ Musk said at Neuralink’s launch. There have been countless articles politely discussing the ethics of using a chip to capture neurological signals in the way a smartphone tracks our online behaviour. But asking a tech company not to collect data is like asking a person not to breathe.

Like the Soviet state dangling the promise of a radiant future in front of its tired citizens, Musk’s success is sustained by predictions of a technological sublime that’s only ever another decade away. These predictions are increasingly made on Twitter and have the power to move markets in directions that benefit his wealth, making him intermittently the richest man on the planet. As he said at Neuralink’s launch, ‘the future is going to be weird.’ Just not for the reasons he imagines.


  • 28 June 2021 at 6:27pm
    Joe Morison says:
    The idea that complex concepts exist in the brain in a pure prelinguistic form and that translating them into words entails the loss of ‘a lot of information’ is a total inversion of reality. Our complex thoughts exist in and are created by language, and language is a public practice - no one can have an idea which they cannot put into words, there are no private languages.

    • 28 June 2021 at 10:06pm
      David Lobina says: @ Joe Morison
      This is hardly the established view in contemporary cognitive science; most scholars nowadays draw a distinction between concepts as mental particulars and the words of a given language one may use to express such concepts, and for multiple reasons. Further, if the mention of a 'private language' is meant to be a reference to Wittgenstein, well, not many people think his arguments on this point are convincing, or that they discount what is usually referred to as 'the language of thought'. This doesn't mean that Musk's claims make any sense, though.

    • 29 June 2021 at 9:41am
      Joe Morison says: @ David Lobina
      I’ll take your word for it, David, when you say that not many people find Wittgenstein’s private language argument convincing. As a friend of mine, a don in the philosophy department at Kings in London, put it: ‘most of modern philosophy skirts Wittgenstein because they just don’t understand him’ - and that’s among philosophers let alone cognitive scientists. His later work is among the most complex, subtle, and profound human thought ever produced; the world views of quantum mechanics are easier to get one’s head around. I can’t speak for many people but I’m fairly sure that among Wittgenstein scholars the argument is as revered and debated as it ever was.

    • 29 June 2021 at 12:45pm
      Thomas Earl says: @ Joe Morison
      "Our complex thoughts exist in and are created by language, and language is a public practice - no one can have an idea which they cannot put into words, there are no private languages."

      But this is palpably false, is it not? I frequently find myself struggling to find the words to articulate what's in my head.

      Indeed, how then do new words form? By your logic, the thought follows the word. So where do new words come from, if not thoughts? Or rather, why is there even a need for new words, if new concepts cannot occur without a word preceding them? It is the case, surely, that words are created to express thoughts that humans, with their present vocabulary, cannot fully articulate?

      Intelligent animals other than humans exist, such as chimpanzees and whales. Though they communicate through sound, their 'language' is not nearly as advanced as that of humans. Presumably you do not think that, when a chimpanzee solves a puzzle of relative complexity, they are working through it in their brain using language? How, then, are they able to solve problems, if concepts cannot exist in prelinguistic form?

    • 29 June 2021 at 1:38pm
      Solipsissimus says: @ Thomas Earl
      Maybe the reason we sometimes struggle to articulate a thought is that the thought is not a clear one. The struggle to find the right words is itself the process which clarifies it, for better or worse.
      On a more mundane level as I get older that it’s sometimes just a matter of trying to recall the right word.

    • 30 June 2021 at 3:40am
      Joe Morison says: @ Thomas Earl
      In saying that we struggle to find the words to articulate what’s in our heads, we are using a metaphor to describe the process whereby we let all that we have previously thought about an issue mix with the unconscious and subconscious forces in our minds to find a form of words that satisfies them all. In doing this, we are creating the thought - it did not actually exist there beforehand.

      As for intelligent animals, a private language is not one that is not communicated to others, it is one that cannot be communicated to others because only the speaker can know its meaning. If a chimp can work out a complex problem, it can in principle communicate that to another suitably trained chimp.

    • 30 June 2021 at 1:54pm
      ianbrowne says: @ Joe Morison
      There’s a nice account of this by Robert Pippin, in his book Nietzsche - Psychology and First Philosophy. He says that if you want to write a poem, the end result is the poem you wanted to write. If it is a bad poem, it isn’t an imperfect realization of the poem you had in mind before you started to write, that somehow you failed to achieve. The poem, however awful it is, is the one you had in mind. There isn’t anything else that you had in mind. There is no conceptual space between what you wrote and what you intended to write.

      Here’s the quote: “To put the matter more straightforwardly, if I start out to write a poem, I might find that it does not go as I expected and think this is because the material "resists" my execution, my inner poem, and so what I get is a "poorly expressed poem": this is a very misleading picture… The poem is a perfect expression of what your intention and ability turned out to he. To ask for a better poem is to ask for another one, for the formation and execution of another intention. If the poem failed, everything has failed. It (the expression of what has turned out to be the "intended poem") just ended up being a bad poem, not a bad expression of a good poem. As Nietzsche keeps insisting, our egos are wedded to the latter account; but the former correctly expresses what happened.”

    • 30 June 2021 at 11:31pm
      Tom MacColl says: @ ianbrowne
      In my experience as a proofreader, I have quite often received profound thanks from clients because I have been able to express "what they were trying to say" for them better than they were able to themselves. I like your quote and idea but I'm not sure it's correct - surely having training in/a natural facility for language does not mean you have better thoughts than someone who struggles with linguistic expression (but may be a scientific or musical genius, or just be expressing themselves in a second language)? If I can perceive what a chemist or a Portuguese speaker is trying to get across and show them how to put it clearly in good academic English so that it will be better understood and received, can that mean that the better understood and received version of the idea is mine rather than theirs?

    • 1 July 2021 at 6:48am
      Joe Morison says: @ Tom MacColl
      The inarticulate and the untranslated are quite different cases, as so often pushing it to extremes makes it clearer. Imagine a keen appreciator of poetry who has no talent for composing it, they are friends with a great poet and go to them to ask for a poem for their partner’s birthday. They talk at length about how they feel about their partner, then the poet goes away and composes the poem. Upon reading it, their friend is ecstatic: ‘That’s it,’ they cry, ‘you’ve captured exactly what I want to say!’ In such a case, no one would say that the person already had the poem in them and all it took was a great poet to unearth it.

      As for translation, the person has the thought in their original language but that doesn’t mean it’s there in translation. I speak no Hungarian, if I started to learn it I would constantly have my teacher expressing what I was trying to say, that doesn’t mean the thoughts were already there in me in Hungarian.

      With inarticulate scientific geniuses, presumably that’s just a specialized case of translation: their thought is fully formed in mathematics but they are having problems putting it into words.

    • 1 July 2021 at 6:42pm
      ianbrowne says: @ Joe Morison
      "Imagine a keen appreciator of poetry who has no talent for composing it, they are friends with a great poet and go to them to ask for a poem for their partner’s birthday. They talk at length about how they feel about their partner, then the poet goes away and composes the poem. Upon reading it, their friend is ecstatic: ‘That’s it,’ they cry, ‘you’ve captured exactly what I want to say!’"

      This almost describes a scene from Antonio Skarmeta's Burning Patience, where the postman gives the woman he is infatuated with a poem by Neruda. The mother of the young woman reads the poem, thinking it is written by the postman, and lets out a horrified cry, "He's seen her naked!"

      A lovely funny book with the saddest ending.

    • 1 July 2021 at 6:47pm
      ianbrowne says: @ Tom MacColl
      A short answer. The idea is both yours and theirs, but it is not their original idea in a better shape. It is a new idea which is a "close relative" of the original one. I've had the same experience too, helping Romanians who speak excellent English put their ideas into English. The end result is a new idea, whose origins are the original, but it is no longer the original idea.

    • 1 July 2021 at 6:52pm
      ianbrowne says: @ Joe Morison
      I missed one vital piece of information. The postman delivers Neruda's mail, and has become a friend. Neruda writes the poem for him, after the postman has spent hours describing the beauty of the woman and his love for her.

      Burning Patience is not a love story. It is, according to Skarmeta, an explanation of why dictatorships kill poets, and wby they sometimes kill postmen as well.

    • 2 July 2021 at 11:43am
      Tom MacColl says: @ Joe Morison
      Very interesting. Perhaps it's just my untrained mind but I'm still struggling to get over the idea that the unvoiced kernel of the idea is somewhere in there, below or pre-language. And thinking about how (many) feelings and ideas arise as a result of social/sensory stimuli in the world and must even in those who do not have language.

      Does your suggestion not create a sort of digital track for thought based on what language one speaks, imposed on an analogue system of thought? I.e., if we accept that the language forms the idea, does that mean all English speakers have the same idea when they think "the world is very large" and all French speakers have the same idea when they think "le monde est très grand" but the two ideas are not the same idea? And what then of pidgin languages, dialects and bilingualism? If I think the thought in English am I thinking it along with other English speakers, but if in French I jump tracks and have a different but similar idea which other French speakers share?

    • 2 July 2021 at 11:50am
      Joe Morison says: @ ianbrowne
      A much better description of what happens in complex translation than mine.

    • 2 July 2021 at 4:06pm
      ianbrowne says: @ Tom MacColl
      I'm not sure I'm the best person to answer you. Far from it I suspect. But I'll have a go. I'm not a professional translator, just someone who occassionally helps friends.

      I had a problem a few months ago with the English word "Lord" and the Romanian word "boyer". Boyers tended to be landowners who owned serfs, but not just that and they didn't always own serfs. As far as I know there wasn't really a hereditary aristocracy as such in Romania, serfdom wasn't abolished in Romania until around 1860. I was doing some English to Romanian translation and in some contexts I translated "lord" not as "boyer" but as "hereditary landowner to whom serfs were bound by ties of feudal obligation" (which isn't exactly right, but it was good enough for my purposes). In other contexts I translated it simply as "from an old distinguished family". In other contexts I just used the word "boyer", when there weren't any associations with political power or economic exploitation, such as "Paul Zarifopol was from a boyer family". It depended on the context. If I wanted to talk about patterns of labour relations that were not entirely goverened by the wage system, I used the former. If I wanted to talk about how political power remained in the hands of certain families from one generation to the next, I used the latter. When I help Romanian friends, who all speak very good English, a lot of time is spent trying to get the nuances right. And that often means asking them exactly which aspect of being a boyer is important for the sentence - something they may not have considered until that point.
      It is less a case of trying to get their pre-existing thought exactly right, as clarifying an underlying idea which is itself not absolutely clear.

      But, on balance, I'd prefer to use the word "underlying" rather than "pre-exisiting" to describe the original idea.

    • 3 July 2021 at 9:24am
      Joe Morison says: @ Tom MacColl
      You’re mistaking the keyhole for the key. In our minds, beliefs accumulate and feelings of every sort swirl, these forces produce tensions and spaces; for a particular problem this can be like a keyhole where the right thought will fill the hole and turn to ease the tensions. This might be really simple, like what to serve at supper to satisfy everyone’s peculiar diets, or really complex, like the phenomena which made sense to Einstein once he saw that acceleration was the same as gravity; in each case, once it comes, it can seem as if the answer was waiting there, but it wasn’t. What was waiting was the problem to be solved, the keyhole but not the key.

      It would only be analogue versus digital thought (if I understand you) if we insisted on perfect translations. English and French speakers have identical thoughts when it comes to the world being very big; but with more subtle ideas a foreign language does give a subtly different world view. It’s why Nietzsche, himself a polyglot, said that the more languages a person speaks, the less well they speak their own - too many cooks … .

  • 29 June 2021 at 3:42am
    Graucho says:
    Have other people know what I think of them? Worse still know what they really think of me. Oh brave new world that has such people in it. This idea is truly dystopian.

  • 29 June 2021 at 11:48am
    Keith Woolcock says:
    Just as it is sensible to ignore Musk hagiographies, it pays to discount articles such as this that wear its bias so brazenly. Musk has achieved a huge amount: rockets that can be refused, which has crashed the cost of space travel, and a successful car company.
    It’s a testament to Musk’s achievements that the problems he faces become more difficult. As Francis Bacon ( the painter) said, nothing exceptional can be achieved without being extreme.
    Maybe Phil Jones should stick to writing about politics where his terminal world weariness is better suited.

    • 29 June 2021 at 1:42pm
      Solipsissimus says: @ Keith Woolcock
      I don’t think anyone would deny that the application of enough money and determination can yield results. What is more worrying is that Musk, like some other tech supremos, seems to have a distinctly totalitarian streak.

    • 29 June 2021 at 3:03pm
      Andrew Smith says: @ Keith Woolcock
      A reusable rocket; indeed, so reusable that he has recycled 40 year old Soviet tech to "pioneer" it. His car company is not successful if you measure success in such an enterprise by metrics like, I don't know: producing many cars; making a profit from selling cars; producing roadworthy cars. But if your yardstick of success is pumping stock, then yes; he is an expert at that. All the hype and hyperbole are there to raise share prices because Musk's pay packet depends on that alone. And for all the fanfare about Tesla becoming profitable in recent years, you might want to check how much of that profit comes from state subsidies and the zero emissions credit market. He is basically a Gen X Trump: TrumpX, I guess he might call it.

    • 30 June 2021 at 7:04am
      EnoahBallard says: @ Keith Woolcock
      It's burlesque how Musk cultists teleport instantaneously wherever in the virtual spheres their god's name is being besmirched. And they never seem to address the points of criticism (or ridicule), they continuously deflect to some sci-fi-inspired version of a supra-being trying against all odds to save the world by flying rich people to Mars or making you buy an overpriced battery.

  • 29 June 2021 at 1:49pm
    Jude Cobbing says:
    Whilst it's true that Musk can't be accused of under-hyping some of his ideas and ventures, it's depressing to see the LRB succumbing to the trend for Musk-bashing that relies on only the shakiest grasp of what he's actually done. A "growing list of failures"? Musk has reinvented the automobile industry, and at the same time made advances in rocket science that eluded NASA. Not "a decade away", but today. With failures like that, who needs success? Without Tesla, electric cars would have long remained a curiosity - the ascendance of this technology gives us a path towards zero-emissions transport, and hope for limiting climate change in time. This was the whole point of setting up the company in the first place:
    I wouldn't bet on Musk not getting to Mars, although 2026 may well be optimistic. Perhaps when he gets there, the grumbling and grousing will finally stop?

    • 29 June 2021 at 6:39pm
      tim emp says: @ Jude Cobbing
      I don't think we want the grumbling and grousing to finally stop, do we?

    • 29 June 2021 at 9:12pm
      Jude Cobbing says: @ tim emp
      I don't mind grumbling - have even been known to grumble a bit myself - but isn't grumbling about stuff one knows little about really just pub bore territory? If we're going to grumble, I vote for doing it properly.

  • 29 June 2021 at 8:31pm
    Douglas Geyer says:
    Well, I would refer you to the film, "The President's Analyst," and the evil plot therein of TPC ("The Phone Company") to place chips in every brain to make communication easier.

  • 4 July 2021 at 7:18am
    Byron Black says:
    While Mr Jones touches on the Soviet experiments only briefly, it should be noted that there have been determined efforts to access the occult realms, and yes, just like the West to weaponize psychic power. Large and well-funded experiments in areas such as remote viewing all ended in tears, the same as the reluctant (hold-their-nose) ones conducted by the CIA (going through the motions only because they were alarmed that their counterparts might come across something useful and dependable). There were even experiments aimed at harming or killing an adversary far away, through focused occult force.

    Here's the fundamental difference in perception: retired USAF officers responsible for ICBM and nuclear weapons bunkers security have come forth with reports of UFOs interfering with the weaponry. They were ridiculed or ignored by the Pentagon. Meanwhile, former President of the Republic of Kalmykia Kirsan Ilyumzhinov maintains he was visited by aliens in his Moscow apartment, and taken for a ride. Soon after he went public with these claims he was visited by a squad of FSB goombahs who interrogated him to make sure he had not divulged any state secrets to the interplanetary visitors.

    The Russians take the matter very seriously. They simply haven't been able to turn it to their use.

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