People talk about brain implants as if theyâ€™re an imagined biohorror in the distant future. This is a misconception. Hardwired trodes already exist, theyâ€™re more widespread than you think, and theyâ€™ll only be more prevalent as time goes on.
Today, itâ€™s an iPhone 14 under the Xmas tree. Come the Singularity, transhumanists hope and pray, itâ€™ll be an iTrode 666 in your cerebral cortex.
NeuralinkÂ is racing to catch upâ€”burning through lab animals like so much kindlingâ€”and will likely take the lead once theyâ€™re approved for human trials.
Enjoying a decent head start, Blackrock Neurotech is the most prolific brain-jack racket. â€œ36 people around the world have an implanted brain-computer interface,â€ their website states. â€œ32 of them use Blackrock technology.â€ (If I had to wager, the former number is likely greater.)
These silicon seeds have been planted in a bed of gray matter, and after recent rounds of generous financing, theyâ€™re growing fast.
Itâ€™s important to note, though, that current BCIs are used toÂ readÂ the neurons, notÂ writeÂ onto them. At least for now. Yes, there are deep brain stimulation implantsâ€”wired electrodes that sit under the skull, typically used to control tremors, and more recently, to alter mood. These simple systems, embedded in overÂ 160,000 headsÂ around the world, do provide input signals. But thatâ€™s a long way from hearing articulate voices in your head.
However, should the most aggressive developers realize their dreams, readily available BCI systems will read and rewrite our minds like RAM drives. In the near future, weâ€™re told, commercial implants will allow regular humans to commune with artificial intelligence as if we were spirit mediums drawing ghosts out of the aether.
Manufacturers shield themselves from public outcry by promising the lame will walk and the blind will see. Thatâ€™s already happening, but the openly declared goal is to move from healing to enhancement.
Last week, Synchron had their BCI bankrolledÂ by theÂ palm-scanning home-invaderÂ Jeff Bezos and the island-hopping â€œVaxx Kingâ€ Bill Gates, withÂ $75 million in total investment. Currently, the Brooklyn-based company has jammed chips into multiple human brains. Last summer, they received FDA approval to start trials in the US. Like most BCIs, the device functions like a telepathic touchpad in your skull.
Synchronâ€™s main product, the Stentrode, is much less invasive than its competitors. For instance, Blackrock Neurotech uses a micro-electrode array that sits on top of the brain, requiring doctors to cut through bone for installation. Neuralinkâ€™s processor is basically a quarter-sized skull plug, with 1,024 hair-thin wires fanning out like jellyfish tentacles into the gray matter below.
The Stentrode is just a wire-mesh stint, like a tiny pair of Chinese finger cuffs. Surgeons insert this stint in the jugular vein and maneuver it up through the brainâ€™s blood vessels to the desired location. Once installed, the Stentrode monitors brain activity for intention. This information is sent down a cable to an antenna device sitting on the chest under the skin. That data is then transmitted to external devices.
Like its competitors, Synchronâ€™s current projects are focused on the motor cortex. In a series of exercises, the user concentrates on a specific intention. The device then reads the corresponding brain activity, and external artificial intelligence systems create a digital mirror, correlating the brain pattern to the intention. All of this happens in microseconds, allowing for real-time monitoring.
After the brainâ€™s partial mirror image is fleshed out, the paralyzed user can do things like move a cursor onscreen to type text. Synchronâ€™s most famous patient, a locked-in ALS victim, made headlines in December of 2021 for sending the first telepathic tweet. Using the Twitter account of CEO Tom Oxley, he typed out:
And in a follow-up tweet:
Only a monster would deny the obvious benefit of inserting a BCI into a fully conscious but uncommunicative vegetable, allowing him to speak to his loved ones once again. The snag is that brain-computer interfaces wonâ€™t stop here. The ultimate goal is cyborg supremacy.
â€œSynchronâ€™s north star is to achieve whole-brain data transfer,â€ OxleyÂ said last year, evoking a kinder, gentler version of theÂ Moravec Transfer. â€œThe blood vessels provide surgery-free access to all regions of the brain, and at scale.â€ This means doctors will eventually snake Stentrodes into every lobe and cortexâ€”sort of like having an Alexa in every room of your houseâ€”and subsequently create a digital twin of the organÂ in silico.
Itâ€™s the ultimate fusion of mind with machine, allowing the user to control digital activity with his thoughts alone. In turn, this gives scientists and artificial intelligence total access to the userâ€™s mental gears. Because most primary functions are nearly identical from person to person, once youâ€™ve mapped one brain, youâ€™ve basically mapped them all.
For many working on BCIs,Â the prospect of a man-machine merger is intoxicating. Possessed by the same spirit as Neuralinkâ€™s owner Elon Muskâ€”who openly states his desire toÂ merge brains with AI for intellectual enhancementâ€”Synchronâ€™s Tom Oxley hasÂ a more heart-warming visionÂ of our cyborg destiny:
In the future, Iâ€™m really excited about the breakthroughs BCI could deliver to other conditions like epilepsy, depression, and dementia. But beyond that, what is this going to mean for humanity?
Whatâ€™s really got me thinking is the future of communication.
Take emotion. Have you ever considered how hard it is to express how you feel? You have to self-reflect, package the emotion into words, and then use the muscles of your mouth to speak those words. But you really just want someone to know how you feel. â€¦
So what if rather than using your words, you could throw your emotions? … At that moment, we would have realized that the necessary use of words to express our current state of being was always going to fall short. The full potential of the brain would then be unlocked.
Far beyond healing, Oxley wants to transcend the human condition entirely, or at least transform it. In this sense, heâ€™s an obvious transhumanist, even if he avoids the term.
This transhuman orientation is shared across the BCI field. As Iâ€™ve covered extensively, various brain researchers affiliated withÂ DARPA, theÂ RAND Corporation, theÂ Royal Society of London, theÂ National Institutes of Health,Â Silicon Valley, theÂ World Economic Forum, and countless university labs are aiming for an upgraded Humanity 2.0.
Iâ€™m not spinning some â€œconspiracy theoryâ€ here. Itâ€™s simply a thing.
Before Charles Lieber wasÂ convicted for taking Chinese moneyÂ under the table, the Harvard chemist was developing a nanoscale brain-computer interface that could be injected via syringe. This microscopic neural lace merges with the neurons, creating â€œcyborg tissueâ€ that can communicate with a computer.
â€œWeâ€™re trying to blur the distinction between electronic circuits and neural circuits,â€ heÂ toldÂ Smithsonian Magazine. And if you browse the names ofÂ former Lieber Group membersÂ on Harvardâ€™s website, itâ€™s obvious that Chinese researchers, along with the Chinese Communist Party, share his passion for biodigital convergence.
â€œThis could make some inroads to a brain interface for consumers,â€ a Rice University tech developer commented.Â â€œPlugging your computer into your brain becomes a lot more palatable if all you need to do is inject something.â€
These guys take â€œthe jabâ€ to a whole new level.
Another gross misconception is that transhumanismÂ is a purely leftist or globalist agenda. This may be a politically convenient position to take, but itâ€™s indefensible.
Amongst others, the scrappy Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel is, in effect, a Western nationalist. On the Republican side, he recentlyÂ fundedÂ the senatorial campaigns of J.D. Vance and Blake Masters. On the transhuman side, the multi-billionaire was anÂ initial investorÂ in Neuralink, and is nowÂ financing their rivalsÂ at Blackrock Neurotech.
Philosophically speaking, Thiel is far more articulate than other tech titans like Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, or the new Conservative, Inc â€œsuperhero,â€ Elon Musk. While they share the same interests in life extension, brain interfacing, and artificial intelligence, Thiel explicitly steers his projects toward advancing and defending Western civilization.
For right-wingers opposed to the hubris of transhumanismâ€”an unfashionable term that ThielÂ wisely distances himself fromâ€”his strange blend of traditional mythos and techno-futurism complicates the standard narrative. In a provocative essay atÂ First Things,Â entitled â€œAgainst Edenism,â€ Thiel urges Christians to accept the inevitability, or at least the necessity, of progress. As civilization hurtles toward apocalypse, there can be no return to Eden.
â€œThe future will look very different from the past,â€ he writes, citing Genesis and Revelation. â€œThe Garden of Paradise will culminate in the City of Heaven.â€ In Thiel’s view, the mission to develop technology runs parallel to Godâ€™s act of creation, which brought order to the face of the deep:
Judeo-Western optimism differs from the atheist optimism of the Enlightenment in the extreme degree to which it believes that the forces of chaos and nature can and will be mastered. The tyranny of Chance will give way to the providence of God.
Exercising our natural human capacities, we are co-creators in this processâ€”aka, Homo Deus:
Science and technology are natural allies to this Judeo-Western optimism, especially if we remain open to an eschatological frame in which God works through us in building the kingdom of heaven today, here on Earthâ€”in which the kingdom of heaven is both a future reality and something partially achievable in the present.
Looking through Thielâ€™s business portfolioâ€”especiallyÂ Palantirâ€”this â€œpartially achievableâ€ divine kingdom includesÂ wall-to-wall surveillance grids, mass data-mining,Â military-grade artificial intelligence, BCI control devices, genetic engineering,Â vampiric blood transfusionsÂ from young donors to aging billionaires, and of course, Bitcoin. Lots and lots of Bitcoin.
Call me cynical, but I see little difference between Thielâ€™s technocratic â€œCity of Godâ€ and the Beast System of the Antichrist. Even so, thereâ€™s a quandary that canâ€™t be avoided.
No matter how blasphemous his cosmic vision may be, Thielâ€™s argument for the necessity of science and technology is essentially correct. If Western nation-states are to compete, or even survive, in the global Fourth Industrial Revolutionâ€”â€œthe fusion of the physical, digital, and biological worldsâ€â€”we wonâ€™t do it with typewriters and sling shots.
We need a plan. And as much as you may despise Thielâ€™s quest for cybernetic Mammon, at least he has one.
We are in the throes of a civilizational transformation.Â The idea of â€œprogressâ€ may seem absurd when the potholes multiply and basic commodities grow scarce, but technology is progressing nonetheless.
Each of us is being hardwired for control. On the one hand, weâ€™re granted control over various devices and vast stretches of virtual space. On the other, elites who deploy those devices and police our virtual spaces are taking control over us.
As the brain-computer interface creeps into public consciousness via news stories and propagandaâ€”as the idea is implanted in our mindsâ€”it becomes a profound symbol for total control. With each technical advance, that symbol edges closer to realization.
Iâ€™m not saying this to freak you out. Alarmist thinking is weak. But donâ€™t tell me â€œItâ€™ll never happen.â€
The intermediate steps toward this man-machine merger have already been taken. Over the past century and a half, humans have acclimated to the telegraph, the telephone, the radio, the television, and the desktop computer. Now, across the planet, weâ€™re fusing with our devices through smartphone-symbiosis.
Holding these screens in our hands, with digital content filling our heads, we already bear a mark that allows us to buy or sellâ€”hovering somewhere between UberEats and the Antichrist. TheÂ next phaseÂ is aÂ non-invasive BCI skull cap, orÂ brainwave headband, looming justÂ over the horizon. From there, itâ€™s a small step to getting an iTrode jammed in your dome.
All of us fall somewhere on the caveman-to-cyborg spectrum, with most sliding rightward on the scale. The question isnâ€™t whether society is going thereâ€”itâ€™s how far each of us will go.