Engineering our own evolution
The recent BBC drama ‘Years & Years,’ set in the very near future, featured a young woman obsessed with becoming trans-human. She ended up with an augmented brain that could act as a hacking and surveillance tool with instant access to way more data than any normal human using a mere laptop.
Years & Years was so compelling because it placed many of its predictions well within the realms of plausibility. But the idea anyone will be half human, half computer in the next 15 years is far-fetched.
That’s not to say people aren’t trying to get us there eventually. Elon Musk’s company Neuralink gave a press conference yesterday, where they discussed their work for the first time. They want to 'wire up’ human brains with tiny threads that connect to a processor sitting on top of the skull. This will act as an interface to give humans direct access to data from the internet or elsewhere.
The possible uses of this are incredible: imagine thinking about the name of a destination you want to drive to, and instantly knowing the best route, accounting for real-time traffic conditions, for example. Or imagine being delayed on your journey home, and being able to just 'think’ a message to your significant other to let them know. They won’t have to read a message from you, they’ll just 'know’ you’ve said you’ll be late.
Neuralink wants to start out by offering 'plug-in’ abilities, such as letting amputees instantly learn to walk with a prosthetic leg, or letting paralysed people control computers with their brains.
This sounds amazing, but the reality is messy as it will likely at first involve drilling holes in the skull so the threads can then be woven into the brain by a robot. What’s more, the threads may not even remain useful for a long time inside the brain.
And the testing process for this technology is pretty alarming, involving as it has a rat with a USB-C port in its head. Elon Musk even claims a monkey has controlled a computer with its brain, using the tech that has much higher data bandwidth than similar existing techniques.
If this works in human, we have no idea how we would react to being so intimately connected to external data. Could we cope with it on an emotional level? And what physical and mental side effects might it cause?
Neuralink isn’t the only group doing research like this, but I certainly won’t be lining up to be anyone’s first test subject.
That said, providing we can get through the challenges of the climate crisis, enhanced humans could eventually be the next stage of our evolution.