On 29 January, Elon Musk announced that the first human patient had received an implant from Neuralink, the billionaire’s brain-chip start-up which promises neuron-spike detection (“spikes” refer to the activity by neurons that use electrical and chemical signals to send information around the brain and to the body). The US Food and Drug Administration cleared the company to conduct implant trials on humans last year, justifying its decision on the basis that the technology may help patients overcome paralysis and other neurological conditions.
But more is at stake with respect to implantable brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) and the radical changes to our way of life their existence implies.
The basic idea of BCIs is that of a direct communication pathway, first between a wired brain and an external device, such as a computer, and then between brains themselves, or brain-to-brain interfacing. The development of communication from the spoken word, in which varying layers of mediation exist between interlocutors – writing, telegraph, phone, internet – would be circumvented. The prospect of a direct link bypassing these additional layers is not just based on greater speed but also accuracy: when I think about something, I don’t have to translate my thought into linguistic signs that brutally simplify meaning – my partner directly comprehends what I think.
As Musk put it in 2017 not long after he founded Neuralink: “If I were to communicate a concept to you, you would essentially engage in consensual telepathy. You wouldn’t need to verbalise unless you want to add a little flair to the conversation or something, but the conversation would be conceptual interaction on a level that’s difficult to conceive of right now.” Extend this idea to the domain of sex, for example: you could save a great sex experience in the cloud to enjoy again later – or, if you’re not too private a person, you could send it over to a friend to experience.
Even if we endorse the feasibility of shared experiences, a series of questions arise. The first one concerns the role of language in the formation of our thoughts and of our “inner life”. Musk assumes that our thoughts are present in our mind independently of their expression in language, so that if I connect my brain directly with another’s brain, the other individual will experience my thoughts directly in all their wealth and finesse, not distorted by the clumsiness and simplification of language.
But what if language in all its clumsiness and simplification generates the elusive wealth of our thoughts? A thought’s true content actualises itself only through its linguistic expression – prior to this expression, it is nothing substantial, just a confused inner intention. I only learn what I wanted to say by effectively saying it. We think in words: even when we see and experience events and processes, their perception is already structured through our symbolic network. When I see a gun in front of me, all the meanings associated with it are symbolically overdetermined – I perceive a gun but this perception is given its specific spin by the word “gun” that resonates in it, and words always refer to universal notions. Therein resides the paradox of the symbolic overdetermination: when I perceive a real gun in front of me, the word “gun” awakens the rich texture of meaning associated with a gun.
What BCIs promise, however, is not only the abolition of language but also the abolition of human sexuality. What constitutes human sexuality is an unnecessary complication that prevents direct access to a goal: failure (measured by the standards of simple instinctual mating) is cultivated as the resource of new sexual pleasures. Can we imagine something more stupid (from the standpoint of successful reproduction), for example, than the tradition of courtly love in which the completion of sex is endlessly postponed? So how could courtly love become the model of high eroticism? And what about our perverted games, in which a particular object or gesture that should be constrained to a subordinated moment of erotic foreplay turns into the central feature, the focus of libidinal intensity, which eclipses the big procreative Act? Is this dimension of erotic mediation not threatened by a direct brain-to-brain link?
Musk’s first line of defence is that, in his version of BCI, the individual is not totally immersed into the flow of the thoughts of others: they maintain a minimal distance from this flow, so that, to allow the machine (or, through it, another individual) to register and/or share your thoughts and feelings, you have to actively consent to it. “People won’t be able to read your thoughts,” he said in 2017, “you would have to will it. If you don’t will it, it doesn’t happen. Just like if you don’t will your mouth to talk, it doesn’t talk.” How does Musk know that the individual maintains this minimal distance? Remember that BCI works “objectively”: our brain is wired, linked to a machine that, strictly speaking, doesn’t “read our thoughts” but the processes in our brain that are the neuronal correlate of our thoughts; consequently, since when I think I am not aware of the neuronal processes in my brain, how should I know if I am plugged in or not? Is it not much more reasonable to surmise that, when I am plugged into BCI, I will not even be aware when my inner life is transparent to others? Does BCI not offer itself as the ideal medium of (political) control of the inner life of individuals? Most of those who reflect on Neuralink focus on the individuality of experience – will I lose it or not when I am immersed in singularity? But there is the opposite option: what if I retain my individuality in experience, and yet don’t know if I am being controlled and steered by another?
Perhaps the saddest aspect of Neuralink is its cynical opportunism: humans gave birth to a higher form of intelligence that, if left to deploy its powers, would reduce us to gorillas in a zoo. The only way for us to avoid this fate is to join the winner, to leave behind our humanity and immerse ourselves into Singularity.
The sublime obverse of this cynical vision (“let’s try to catch up with the machines so that we will not become apes in a zoo”) is the gnostic New Age reading of Singularity as not only the next stage of post-humanity but a key cosmic event, the accomplishment of divine self-actualisation. In Singularity, not only we, humans, become divine, God himself becomes fully divine. In so far as Singularity also implies a kind of synchronicity of minds, no wonder that it calls for spiritual-philosophical speculations: Singularity is perceived as nothing less than our redemption from the Fall. That is, from our existence as mortal and sexualised beings as described in Genesis.
This brings us again to the question of power: which regulatory mechanism will decide which experiences I will share with others, and who will control this mechanism? One thing is sure: one should discard as utopian the idea that I will be able to connect/disconnect my brain. And one should fully accept that a wide all-encompassing link between minds cannot take place at the level of subjective experience but only at an objective level, as a complex network of machines that “read” my mental states – a vast “synchronous” collective experience is a dangerous myth. Plus, because our brains will be wired without us even being aware of it, a new form of freedom and power will emerge: our being able to isolate ourselves from Singularity. To return to the book of Genesis, the voice of Singularity is another address given by the snake; it promises the annulment of the Fall and the achievement of immortality and superior knowledge if we eat its fruit; that is, if we immerse ourselves into it. As in Genesis, we should be aware that this choice is a forced one: we cannot but go along with it – no withdrawal is possible.
So what will happen? Definitely not what the proponents of Singularity expect. Like the serpent, they are not lying, and the threat resides precisely in their not-lying.
This is an edited extract from Slavoj Zizek, “Hegel in a Wired Brain” (Bloomsbury, 2020).
[See also: Are you ready for Elon Musk to read your mind?]