Can Elon Musk make the human spirit immortal with a robot?


Christian Life

Bart van den Dikkenberg, RD

This video grab made from the online Neuralink livestream shows Elon Musk standing next to the surgical robot during a Neuralink presentation on August 28, 2020. Photo AFP, Neuralink

Elon Musk is using brain implants from his company Neuralink to make the lame walk, the blind see, and the deaf hear. A doubtful development with major ethical concerns.

The US multimillionaire regularly presents himself as the saviour of humanity with Tesla, tunnel drilling company The Boring Company, social media platform X, and also with Neuralink. In the future, people with paralysis due to ALS, MS or a stroke will be able to communicate their thoughts to others via an implant from Neuralink. The implant connects the brain wirelessly to devices outside the body. But the latter company also has some very questionable aspects. "Super scary," columnist Ilyaz Nasrullah calls Musk's plans with Neuralink in Trouw.

The results show that Neuralink does not build illusions. Using such an implant, the company made monkeys play a computer game by controlling the device with their brains. After years of experimenting on mice, rats, pigs and monkeys, Neuralink is ready for tests on humans. But there are quite a few snags in that. Mainly because the company's handling of animal welfare is quite worrying.

Management admitted that Neuralink's experiments at the University of California had caused the deaths of eight animals in recent years. But news agency Reuters dived deep into the matter last year and uncovered very different, shockingly large numbers. Although Neuralink released a reassuring statement, whistleblowers reported as many as 1,500 cases of animal casualties since 2018. In particular, rushed experiments cost many laboratory animals their lives due to infections or other side effects.


Following a trial in March, in which Neuralink was acquitted of animal cruelty, the US Food and Drug Administration FDA gave the company the green light to conduct human trials. "We are excited to announce that we have received FDA approval to launch our first human clinical trial!" Neuralink tweeted on 25 May. Just two months earlier, the FDA rejected a request. At the time, Neuralink could not guarantee the safety of the lithium-ion battery used, and it was unclear whether the wiring could be removed from the brain without damaging it beyond repair.

Since last week, Neuralink has been recruiting subjects with ALS or another paralysis disease for the so-called Prime study. They will receive an implant in their skull the size of a euro coin, a so-called brain-computer interface (BCI). A specialised operating robot, the R1, which Neuralink has developed for this purpose, surgically installs the brain implant under the skull. Delicate power wires connect the interface to 3,000 electrodes in the different brain regions. The entire installation is done under local anaesthesia and takes only half an hour. The implant "measures the electrical signals emitted by neurons. Finally, the speed and patterns of those signals form the basis for movement, thoughts and memories," Musk explained.


The subjects can then use their minds to control a computer cursor or keyboard. Conversely, the devices can also control parts of the subjects. Initially, the research was intended to help people with paralysis. With brain implants, the company may also be able to help people with obesity, autism, depression, schizophrenia, Parkinson's, and epilepsy get rid of their symptoms. "It's like a Fitbit (fitness tracker, Ed.) in your skull with little wires," Musk said during the product demonstration.

But it doesn't stop there; Neuralink also wants to provide healthy people with a technical extension in the future. They, too, should be able to communicate wirelessly with the digital world around them using an implant. With an implant, they can not only expand their memory with an external hard drive but also upload new skills at lightning speed and communicate telepathically with their autonomous car.

This development is currently in its infancy. However, according to Musk, a brain-computer interface will soon become as common as a smartphone. Surfing the web using our brains and communicating telepathically via a chip will become the norm, believes the US billionaire. In the future, humans and computers will work together and share their knowledge and experience.


If humanity does not grow with the development of artificial intelligence, it will eventually fall behind technology, Musk expects. "Humans need to merge with machines to avoid becoming like monkeys," he says.

This development should produce smarter and more powerful people. But who wants this? At Cybernews.com, IT change manager Neil Hughes wonders how it will feel when the artificially intelligent text generator ChatGPT soon starts communicating with the human mind like a second internal voice. It is not imaginary. After all, ChatGPT has recently been able to see, hear and speak. A translation computer is therefore no longer needed. Artificial intelligence recites it internally, and humans simply mimic it.

Human bodies may be upgraded in the future to avoid becoming obsolete or worn out. Musk, therefore, does not rule out brain-computer interfaces merging the human mind and artificial intelligence (AI), giving a human "an AI extension of himself". After all, humans are evolutionarily "work in progress".

The distinction between humans and technology is increasingly blurred by this development. The fusion, also called cyborg, is a form of human enhancement.


That raises all sorts of new questions, IT professional Hughes realises. Will companies, governments or hackers soon have access to the most intimate thoughts and experiences? Will it allow them to subject humanity to a form of surveillance, manipulation and control that a dictator dreams of today? Will there be a thought police? Will a techno-elite class emerge with enormous power and privileges?

Jason Thacker, ethicist at The Ethics and Religious Commission of the American Southern Baptist Convention, puts his finger on Musk's way of thinking. This is based on "a materialistic and evolutionary worldview". Musk wants to give human evolution a helping hand. The vision of life behind this is so-called transhumanism. "Musk, along with many other transhumanists, is trying to improve our fragile humanity," he said.


And that goes a long way. Like the French philosopher René Descartes, transhumanists conceive of humans as a duality of mind and body. They see the mind as "software" and the body as "hardware". The real personality consists of the mind, thoughts and emotions. The body is a kind of container which can be changed or replaced by another. The human mind can then be uploaded into a robot and live on digitally forever, even if the body is dead. The presentation of Tesla's self-learning humanoid robot Optimus last week shows the direction that development is taking. Its capabilities mimic human capabilities quite lifelike.

Because of the speed at which this technology is developing and its complexity, legislation and ethical reflection are hopelessly behind. Hughes: "So it may be time to take our foot off the accelerator and reduce the speed of technological change." He advocates "responsibility and caution".


Ethicist Thacker goes a step further. "Human beings have value because they were created by God in His image and likeness. Our body need not be discredited, as if it does not have the capabilities we need to flourish. Then Christ as Man would also have had shortcomings."

The Christian worldview is so much "richer and more coherent" than Musk's, Thacker argues. It is an "ethical framework that upholds the dignity and respect of every human being". People are "embodied souls who, if they belong to Christ, will receive the ultimate 'upgrade': salvation in God's time by God's power".

This article was translated by CNE.news and published by the Dutch daily Reformatorisch Dagblad on October 4



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