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Elon Musk’s Myths About the Mind

According to Musk, everything in the brain is an electrical signal. That’s pretty naive

Self-driving car entrepreneur Elon Musk sat down last week with popular podcast host Joe Rogan to talk about a variety of topics, including his new venture, Neuralink, announced last year. If you haven’t been following, Neuralink is a technology that aims to create an interface between the brain and a computer.

Musk proposes to embed electrodes within your brain so that signals could be sent and received. A similar technology is already being used in mice and a less invasive technology helps some blind or paralyzed people restore some functions. Neuralink is the first company to aim for something more general (however, its timeline to actual human implants is still up in the air).

What I found most interesting about the conversation, however, is not the technology itself but the (secular) mythology embedded in Musk’s lengthy descriptions of what he thinks his device can do.

Musk believes that, eventually, Neuralink will cure Parkinson’s disease, restore eyesight, return quadriplegics to full function (and even better!), and will, in principle “fix anything that is wrong with the brain.” How?

Well, according to him, everything in the brain is an electrical signal. Therefore, if you have a device implanted in your brain that can send and receive electrical signals, it can compensate for anything that goes wrong. He even believes that he will be able to use Neuralink to digitally record memories—and even edit them (if, for example, you would like to forget a traumatic experience).

Unfortunately for Musk’s ambitions, that is an incredibly naive view of the brain.

First of all, even if the brain were simply an electrical signal system, as Musk suggests, there is no reason to think that his system will be capable of doing all that he proposes. First of all, Neuralink has a little over 3,000 electrodes. The human brain has over 80 billion neurons. Given the coarseness of the resolution, there is no reason to think that Neuralink can fix the kinds of problems he suggests.

It gets worse: Neuroscientists used to think that each neuron was as complex as a switch. But newer research shows that each neuron is more similar to a microprocessor. Having 3,000 electrodes controlled by a single processor does not even remotely give you the power of your brain’s 80 billion processors, all linked together.

However, the deeper issue (which became clearer as the podcast continued) is Musk’s belief in a popular secular mythology of the mind. He sees the mind as merely electrical and its actions as only computation. He believes that all that we see and are today is simply the outworking of bare physics from the Big Bang onward. And somewhere along this route from hydrogen to here, matter became conscious. Then, for Musk, because everything is only physics, consciousness itself must be physical.

This mythology is ultimately the reason that Musk believes so strongly in the power of his tool. It isn’t the bandwidth or the resolution of the sensors; it is simply that Musk thinks that the brain is entirely physics and energy. Thus, if he can get a device inside it, then that device is all that is needed to take control.

Musk is not the first person to think this way. The story is centuries old. It usually starts this way: First, a scientist or engineer discovers a previously unknown aspect of life. Then, after a few small advances, we are told that he has discovered (or is on the verge of discovering) the secret of life. Finally, after decades of getting almost nowhere beyond the initial finds or prototypes, we are informed that it was foolish to think that that discovery was the key to life. But now there is a new discovery out there that really is the secret of life…

For example, in the eighteenth century, Luigi Galvani (1737–1798) showed that electricity could cause animal limbs to move after they were dead. His nephew even electrified a human corpse to show that it was possible for the dead to be “reanimated.” This find lodged a view of life and death in the public imagination that formed the basis for Mary Shelley’s iconic 1818 book Frankenstein (first edition title page at right).

I’m sure that Neuralink will enjoy some success. It may even cure or mitigate some diseases. For that, we can all be thankful. However, I am equally certain that Musk’s idea of the brain and the person will someday sound extremely crude. He will find out the hard way that there are limits to the equivalencies we can draw between man and machine. In fact, he had that experience recently.

In 2016, Elon Musk started making grand claims about the future of his Tesla vehicles. His firm had started adding some “self-driving” features and, as with Neuralink, he assumed that all a computer needs in order to substitute for a human driver is an adequate camera, a fast enough chip, and a connection to all the components in the vehicle.

He went on to deduce that, because they had the technology in place, soon your car could drive itself (with no driver or passenger) to meet you across the country. He even promised that you could register your car as a taxi and, while you slept, your car would make money for you, then come back in the morning so that you could drive it yourself. As recently as last year, he raised two billion dollars on the “robotaxi” concept, telling car buyers that their car would become an appreciating asset.

Of course, as Musk was learning the hard way, AI just isn’t the same as human intelligence. Just getting the sensors, the controls, and the microchip in place aren’t enough. He had to admit defeat earlier this year with respect to his claims about “Full Self-Driving.”

So, while Musk does tend to do a good job of getting sensors, controls, and software to all the right places, his blind adherence to a secular mythology prevents him from seeing the limitations of his approach. As long as he maintains that point of view, he will continue to make the same mistake and not even realize why.


Further reading, from neurosurgeon Michael Egnor, on ways that the brain is not what the mythology predicts:

If your brain were cut in half, would you still be one person? Yes, with minor disabilities. Roger Sperry’s split-brain research convinced him that the mind and free will are real

Yes, split brains are weird, but not the way you think. Scientists who dismiss consciousness and free will ignore the fact that the higher faculties of the mind cannot be split even by splitting the brain in half. (Michael Egnor)

Some people think and speak with only half a brain. A new study sheds light on how they do it.

We will never “solve” the brain. A science historian offers a look at some of the difficulties we face in understanding the brain.

and

Four researchers whose work sheds light on the reality of the mind The brain can be cut in half, but the intellect and will cannot, says Michael Egnor. The intellect and will are metaphysically simple.


Jonathan Bartlett

Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Jonathan Bartlett is a senior software R&D engineer at Specialized Bicycle Components, where he focuses on solving problems that span multiple software teams. Previously he was a senior developer at ITX, where he developed applications for companies across the US. He also offers his time as the Director of The Blyth Institute, focusing on the interplay between mathematics, philosophy, engineering, and science. Jonathan is the author of several textbooks and edited volumes which have been used by universities as diverse as Princeton and DeVry.

Elon Musk’s Myths About the Mind