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.