This is a solo episode of the podcast.
One of many, I think.
I’ll add these to the RSS feed
so you can listen to them as well.
Hopefully it’s interesting to some folks.
These will probably have a Lex solo number
before the title of the episode,
as opposed to just the number for the regular interviews.
The aim is for these episodes
to be focused on a particular topic.
At times challenging, at times personal,
at times exciting to me on a technical
or philosophical level, like the episode today.
This episode is on the long-term future possibilities
of brain-computer interfaces in general,
and Neuralink specifically,
based on the recent update on progress
from the Neuralink team.
I have a basic outline in front of me with some ideas,
but most of it is just off the top of my head,
so I hope you’re okay listening to that kind of thing,
about my general thoughts about Neuralink
and the recent update of progress.
I was fortunate enough to attend the demo in person,
as a random visitor, really,
and chat with another random,
but much, much smarter visitor, Jim Keller,
with whom I did a podcast a while ago,
and we agreed to do another with him soon.
He’s one of the most interesting and brilliant people I know,
so it was great to catch up.
But outside of that, I was just a spectator,
everybody else watching online.
I have no insider information,
have no interest in insider information.
I’m just a fan, longtime fan, of the human brain,
and anyone who’s working hard
to understand its inner workings.
The general sense I got is that there’s a lot
of exciting engineering and scientific challenges
that the big and varied team there is tackling.
I think it’s a really exciting place to be.
Just lots of ideas swimming in the air,
and lots of brilliant people.
It’s always exciting to me to sort of be
in the presence of great engineering teams,
so it’s exciting to see that.
But what I found especially exciting
for my romantic and scientific soul
is the long-term vision, the dreams,
the possibilities that were mentioned by the team
in a spontaneous final question that was asked,
where every member of the team up there answered
their own version of what they’re excited about
to see in the next decade, two decades,
long-term future possibilities of this technology.
So this video is about that,
my thoughts about the possible ways
that Neuralink might change the world
and the human condition.
I’ll try to stick to some categories, some structure,
and try to discuss off the top of my head
my thoughts of the possibilities
that fall within those categories.
I should note here that a lot of the things I’ll discuss
are long-term visions of the future.
To make all of these visions a reality
is exceptionally difficult.
There’s a journey of many breakthroughs required,
but I think we are now in the realm
where a lot of these things are scientific
and engineering challenges
that can be solved by great teams,
by bold innovation from many companies,
not just Neuralink, hopefully many others,
hopefully many competitors
that push the boundaries of what is possible.
But this video is about the visions of the possible futures.
And I think great efforts of humankind start with a vision.
Let me give you a quick outline of categories
within which I see some exciting possibilities.
So first is alleviation of human suffering.
Second is understanding of consciousness, intelligence.
Third is augmentation of the body and mind,
and generally, augmenting reality.
Fourth is gaming,
and beyond that, virtual worlds, virtual reality.
Fifth is all the engineering challenges
around merging biological systems
and computational systems, basically tech.
Sixth is telepathy,
much richer forms of different communication.
Seventh is saving and replaying of memories,
but also saving and replaying of mental state
or mind states, period.
And finally, eighth is merging with artificial intelligence,
all the exciting possibilities around that
that I’d like to discuss.
So since I’m Russian,
let’s start by discussing human suffering.
I think first and foremost,
as was mentioned by the team,
is the possibility that Neuralink
might help alleviate human suffering.
The nervous system, the brain,
at the very basic level is the source of pain.
That’s both physical pain and psychological pain.
So you can talk about anxiety, depression,
trauma of all different kinds.
The ability to measure signals from the brain,
and perhaps more importantly,
the ability to send signals
and in a closed loop interact continuously
with the brain, sending signals in both directions.
It seems like it provides a very rich toolkit
with which to start to deeply understand
the human brain generally,
but in the nearest term to focus that exploration
on the understanding of neurological diseases
so that we may first, of course, understand,
and second, to treat them.
A huge number of mysteries yet to be uncovered
at the very basic level
of how do we treat some of these diseases,
and that falls into the category of human suffering.
You know, we often think about suffering
as arising from the environment
within which the individual lives.
So by placing the focus on the environment,
it allows us to kind of be hopeful
because we can make the environment better.
The source of trauma, the source of anxiety,
the source of depression,
all of the things that come up in political discourse,
these are all things that we can do something about.
So that’s what we focus on
when we try to alleviate human suffering.
But from another perspective,
the real source of suffering and pain
is the human mind, which creates the experience,
the lived experience from the perception
of the external environment
and the perception of the internal environment.
There’s a lot of discussion of meditation, exercise,
a lot of social programs and education,
all kinds of things that aim to help the mind.
But in addition to that,
the exciting possibility with a brain-computer interface
is that we might be able to accelerate our understanding
and treatment and control
of the internal environment of the mind.
Now, of course, it’s also important to say
that there’s injustice in the world,
there’s evil in the world.
Neither Neuralink or any other piece of technology
will be able to get rid of hatred in the world.
But the hope is that at the individual level,
you’ll be able to aid in the alleviation to some degree
of all the sources of neurological suffering.
So second category of future possibilities in Neuralink
have to do around our understanding
of how the brain and the mind works
and all of the things that derive from that.
So basically, we’ll supercharge research
going on in neuroscience today.
So first is understanding how the brain works
at the functional level.
So all the different modules,
from memory to perception to cognition
and all the sub-modules of that.
And as we untangle those pieces,
it’s possible that it will inspire or instruct us
on the engineering side of how to build smarter
and smarter artificial intelligence systems.
So inspire totally new algorithms for learning systems,
for reasoning systems, for knowledge base,
knowledge acquisition, and so on.
And as you push that further, of course,
to me as an artificial intelligence researcher,
the exciting possibility is that we may be able
to understand human intelligence,
where, not location-wise, but functionally,
where intelligence arises in the brain,
or good answers to the question of what is intelligence.
And the next step is, beyond just engineering AI systems,
that may help us understand how we enhance it.
You have all these productivity hacks,
all these kind of life hacks.
Understanding from where our ability to reason
about this world comes from might help us
to really have some nice brain hacks
to improve our ability to reason
in a purely natural way, I’m referring to.
This is before any kind of augmentation
from a computational device.
Now the next level of understanding the human brain,
as was mentioned by the team,
as I bring up often, is a fascinating,
hardest, most interesting problem, I would say,
in the mind, is the hard problem of consciousness.
Beyond intelligence, where does consciousness
arise from the brain?
Again, not location-wise, but functionally.
And again, to be able to, with more scientific rigor,
answer the question, what is consciousness?
Is it a property of matter?
Is it a unique emergent property of the human brain?
Is it something totally different
that we don’t even understand?
Like our mind is some kind of key
into an alternate dimension that only psychedelics
and a device like Neuralink may be able to unlock.
So at the risk of sounding crazy,
it’s an exciting possibility to take consciousness
from, I would say, a field of philosophy
in the 20th century to a field of science
and engineering in the 21st century.
To me, that’s deeply interlinked with intelligence
because I think there’s a beautiful dance there
between consciousness and intelligence in the human mind
that’s not easy or even necessary to untangle,
but I think understanding one
will help us understand the other.
And finally, perhaps, interconnected with consciousness
and intelligence, it might help us take the question of,
is there free will into the realm
of science and engineering versus the realm of philosophy?
To try to make a rigorous study of,
where does this experience of making a choice,
making decisions, like we humans have a control
of the way the future unfolds from where that arises,
is that a real part of the fabric of reality
or is that something that the brain conjures up?
What I see Neuralink as,
as I talked with Elon the second time on the podcast,
I see it as a way to sort of get beyond the factory walls
and see how the inner workings of the factories operate.
As a scientist, as an engineer, and a bit of a philosopher,
that’s truly exciting.
Third future possibility of Neuralink
is augmentations of all different kinds.
So regaining the ability to move
for people who can’t move parts of their body.
I mentioned neurological conditions that affect the mind,
but certainly there’s neurological conditions
that affect the body.
I mean, giving people who can’t walk
the ability to walk again or to walk for the first time,
such an exciting possibility.
If you’ve seen videos of people who, for the first time,
are able to see color or gain a function
that they didn’t have before through technology,
the bliss in their eyes is magical.
Now, the augmentation doesn’t have to be
just in regaining the physical function of the body.
It could be augmentation to the mind.
It could be, for example, regaining the ability to see
by stimulating the visual cortex,
connecting a camera to the visual cortex.
And perhaps more than regaining regular visual function,
it could lead to superhuman-level vision,
whether that’s expanding the spectrum,
like ability to see infrared,
or it’s doing some basic augmented reality kind of things
where some of the detections are done for you
about moving objects, about the categories of objects,
and all that kind of stuff.
Many of the ideas here are the same as those explored
by the work that people are doing
in augmented reality devices,
but it’s very possible that the difference
between a brain-computer interface and glasses, for example,
or heads-up displays, is that BCIs might be able
to create a much richer, high-bandwidth experience
with a fast, closed loop of perception,
more so than the constraints that you have to operate under
with glasses or HUDs.
Fourth, a super exciting possibility for those of us
who were once gamers, or still are gamers,
is by creating an immersive gaming experience.
So BCIs might be able to, once again,
read the brain and stimulate parts of the brain
that enrich in some way the gaming experience.
This could be very shallow, kind of basic enrichment,
just being able to measure levels of excitement, emotion,
those kinds of things that can aid
in the experience of the game.
But also, again, as I said, with augmented reality,
being able to stimulate the visual cortex
in order to create an immersive visual experience.
So with a brain-computer interface,
beyond just gaming, you can start to think
about creating virtual worlds, virtual reality.
That’s very useful for games,
but just creating an immersive experience
of all different kinds.
Again, this is an open question,
but there could be technical barriers
in creating an immersive, rich, high-bandwidth experience
with a virtual reality headset
versus a brain-computer interface.
It’s an open question of creating
a fully immersive experience, what is easier to do
in the long sort of arc of history?
With the technology we have today,
it seems clearly more doable in the short term
to create virtual reality experiences with a headset
as opposed to something that requires brain surgery.
But that’s not to say,
if we look at the long arc of technological progress,
that the much easier solution won’t come
from the direct access to the brain
through something like a brain-computer interface.
And again, I think bigger than gaming,
a lot of people write to me about psychedelics,
for example, which I’ve never done.
But this would be an example of something
where you can create visual experiences
that are safe and controlled
and can take you, perhaps,
to some of those different multiple dimensions
or wherever the heck you go when you take psychedelics
in a more controlled way, perhaps.
And maybe even taking a step back
into more kind of vanilla experiences
of visualizations and meditation.
So imagine the closed loop
of being able to write and read from the brain
in aiding the meditation experience,
sort of emptying your brain from thoughts
figuratively and literally.
The fifth exciting future possibilities
of Neuralink and brain-computer interfaces
is all the innovation and engineering
around the two-way communication
between a human-made electrical computational system
and a biological system.
Just the fabric, the nature of the two design paradigms,
not saying biological systems are designed,
but they are designed through evolution.
Whatever that resilient mess, mush of biology
to the more structured, architectured electrical systems
that are programmed explicitly and clearly,
the communication between these two different worlds
and bringing them closer and closer together
is super exciting.
First, at the very basic level,
that could be all the innovation
around robotic neurosurgery or even surgery in general.
So allowing robots to do what narrow AI systems do best,
which is for basic tasks that have vision and control
where everything is controlled in the environment.
Fully actuated system to be able to minimize
the risk of injury, maximize the probability of success.
So there’s a lot of interesting innovations
around just the robotic side of that.
The next layer of that,
when you look at some of the materials engineering
and even the computational side
of connecting the laces to the brain,
so connecting the electrical device
to the biological device,
we may be able to understand how to engineer
sort of physical computational systems
that have some of the same nice properties of resilience
that biological systems have.
And in so doing, be able to work better
with biological systems,
but also just be able to be more resilient, more robust,
more adaptable perhaps,
or maybe come up with totally different ways
that such systems can learn about their environment,
just like our biological systems can at multiple levels.
And another layer of that,
when you look at what Neuralink is currently doing,
they have 1,024 channels.
The engineering around scaling that to,
I don’t wanna put numbers out,
but any number above that is super exciting.
It’s already 100x anything else that’s out there,
but you can imagine, especially long-term,
it being 10,000, 100,000.
I mean, it could be millions, maybe billions.
I mean, there’s so much possibility
of engineering breakthroughs
about the number of channels that are possible
that we can’t yet imagine,
and that’s a engineering challenge
of how to scale these number of connections,
which are tricky to do
because they have to live, exist successfully
in cooperation with biological systems
for months, years, for long periods of time.
That’s really interesting.
I feel like that’s a forcing function
for us to understand really how we can engineer systems
that in the best possible ways
are not only able to work with other biological systems,
but become more like those biological systems.
So sixth possible future of Neuralink and BCIs
was mentioned a few times by the team
under the flag of telepathic communication or telepathy,
conceptual and consensual telepathy.
So I think, in general,
to enrich the bandwidth in quantity and quality
of the communication between two human beings.
So you can imagine being able to communicate
not just through this kind of 1D realm of words,
but to communicate visual concepts, first of all,
but also kind of mind maps
of like multi-dimensional concept maps
that are in our mind
when we’re trying to reason through things,
to be able to communicate those in some way.
It doesn’t even have to be kind of perfect replication,
but any kind of improvement,
increase in the bandwidth
of the communication between humans
on the visual or on the conceptual side
is super interesting.
I think somebody on the team mentioned kind of art,
to be able to communicate creative,
artistic kind of things in your mind
and share them with others
without having to learn the skill of converting that art
into something in a physical world
that can be observed by others.
You can sort of directly, without learning the skill,
be able to communicate all the crazy beautiful things
that are in your mind.
I think for my world of like programming, for example,
it’d be exciting to think that two human beings
at any level could sort of collaborate together.
It gives a whole nother meaning to pair coding,
where two people can collaborate together
as they work on a project of any kind,
whether it’s in the programming world
or any kind of design world,
architecture, any kind of illustrations,
all that kind of stuff.
Collaborations between humans for intellectual labor,
for design, for engineering work,
or any kind of collaboration in the intellectual space.
And finally, I think it’d be pretty good for podcasting.
So for those of us who don’t like the sound of our voice,
and funny enough, don’t like to be in front of the camera,
instead of having to convert my thoughts awkwardly
in a monotone voice into a microphone,
I can somehow communicate them in a much richer way,
which I think at least for an introvert,
I think the kind of things going on in my mind
seem to be much more eloquent and interesting
than the kind of things that come out of my mouth
when I perform the conversion.
So from like a car mechanic,
or maybe I should say like brain mechanic perspective,
my converter is not working very well
between the brain thoughts and visualizations
and concept space to mouth speaking
different English concepts.
So I look forward to this podcast
being consumed and generated telepathically.
So seven possible future application of Neuralink
will be the ability to save and replay memories,
or save and replay mind states.
It’s a way to do what Daniel Kahneman, for example,
talks about as many of us kind of live life
through memories of previous events.
So kind of the memorable, special things that happen to us
are experienced more deeply and more frequently
through our memories than directly
when we actually experience them for the first time.
And the exciting possibility of Neuralink
is basically improving the resolution of that memory replay
that we generally do anyway.
As people should check out Daniel Kahneman’s work,
he describes it quite eloquently.
And it’s true, many of us live in our memories.
It’s also from a certain perspective,
nice to be able to modify, delete,
or alter some of those memories.
So for example, on a darker side,
it could be traumatic events
that from a psychological perspective could be haunting.
You can remove or at least alleviate
the impact of those memories onto your cognition,
or maybe pull stuff from the subconscious.
You can think of it as a Freud’s favorite kind of toolkit
to play around and explore with our own mind
to discover our demons.
So as opposed to the David Goggins approach
that I’ve taken recently of doing insane amounts of exercise
to discover and have a conversation with my demons,
could do it in a more controlled and safe environment
of brain-computer interfaces.
As a quick side note, there’s interesting echoes
of the memory replay that you’ve seen
in our reinforcement learning systems.
So it’s kind of interesting to think that
instead of just us being able to replay our memories,
it could be our own little machine learning systems
that can learn something from our previous memories
by replaying them over and over
to try to give us maybe a strategy
of how to avoid those memories in the past.
So it’s basically converting our prior experiences
into data, and once it’s converted into data,
that could be used for all kinds of applications.
So you can think of like a personal machine learning system
that can replay your memories and try to figure out,
try to be a personal executive assistant to you
to advise you what to learn from those experiences.
With a lot of these applications that I’ve already discussed,
privacy and security is of paramount importance.
I mean, like with actually a lot of our technology,
but this is very much at the forefront
of what Neuralink is working on currently
and always will be, and I think a lot of companies
in general in the tech space will sink or swim
based on how much they respect privacy and security.
I think in the early days of our development
with social networks and so on,
you could get away easier
by being careless with people’s data.
I think my long-term, perhaps optimistic,
but I think it’s a realistic view of the future
that people will demand much more control over their data,
demand much more transparency around privacy and security,
transparency and clarity.
So of course, that’s underlying all the different futures
that I’m discussing.
And finally, to move a little bit beyond the ability
to save and replay memories is to save mental states,
and that’s essentially a path towards digital immortality.
So you can think of being able to save the contents
or the critical contents of your mind into digital form
and then being able to transfer it to other systems,
to robots, or as in, for example,
my discussion with Sarah Seager,
who searches for habitable planets
outside our solar system, exoplanets.
We discussed the idea that one way, perhaps,
to reach far away livable planets
that might have extraterrestrial intelligent life on them
is by sending digital humans there.
So being able to save essential
or entire contents of the human mind
and to be able to reload it once you arrive
into any kind of, whether it’s a biological
or a robotic system.
So that’s the kind of stuff that Ray Kurzweil thinks about.
It’s also a kind of stuff that I think a lot of people
are excited about is the ability to store
and digitally transfer the contents,
the important, the beautiful contents of the human mind.
Finally, the eighth future possibility of Neuralink,
and also one of the original motivations
behind the company, is the methodology
by which the human mind, the human brain,
the human society can merge
with artificial intelligence systems
once they’re able to achieve human level
and superhuman level intelligence.
Since the origins of the field of AI,
most, if not all, of the progress that’s been made
has been in what might be called
narrow artificial intelligence.
But as a lot of people have discussed,
now there’s a lot of debates around this,
there’s a lot of thoughts, but it seems very possible
that humans, limited though we are,
will one day be able to engineer systems
that are far more intelligent than us human beings
in some dimension that fundamentally changes
the fabric of human society.
So we already have AI systems that are much better
at a lot of things than humans in a narrow way,
but there might be a set of dimensions
where an intelligence system is able to generalize
better than humans in a set of tasks
that can lead to existential risks to human beings,
where artificial intelligence systems
essentially become a kind of direct or indirect competitor,
whether that’s a paperclip manufacturing AI systems
that destroys all humans just to make
its manufactured paperclips a little bit more efficient,
or if it’s a much more complex distributed system,
kind of like our social networks of today,
but much smarter with some kind of combination
of GPT-3 or GPT-20 systems that kind of creep up on us
like the boiling water creeps up on the lobster
and overwhelms the resources or the capacities
of human civilization in a way
that’s fundamentally traumatic or destructive
or poses an existential risk.
Even if that point is far away in time,
and that’s difficult to predict,
I think it’s very difficult to rationally say
that we will never reach that point.
So once you allow that as a possibility,
you start to think from a engineering perspective,
how can we minimize the existential risk
associated with that?
And then creating ways to merge with the AI
so we kind of ride the wave of AI
and they ride the wave of the functionalities
of the human brain is an interesting possibility.
I think it’s a beautiful vision of a future
that’s mostly filled with mystery.
So we don’t know how AGI systems will evolve,
but it’s an interesting idea that as AI systems
become smarter and smarter,
it is one way to ensure our survival
is to expand the capacity of the human mind
to communicate with AI and with the AI
to communicate with the human mind.
At the basic level, to me that’s super exciting
because AI systems can learn from the brain,
the brain can learn from AI systems.
And I’m, as a person who is a big fan of deep thinking,
of sitting for multiple hours and focusing on a single idea
and just thinking with a sheet of paper
and thinking about an idea,
I find myself needing to look up things a lot.
And that’s actually a huge distraction
and it’s a huge drain on my mental resources
and the kind of distraction, the timing of the thinking
is disrupted by having to look up
different kinds of information,
to look up different kinds of papers,
to look up even basic information on Wikipedia.
So the ability to kind of close the loop,
to increase the bandwidth of thinking,
of the lookup of the information that’s available online
is super exciting to me.
Now that’s not even AGI,
that’s just like basic recommender systems,
basic search engines, basic even like GBT three plus plus
type of communication back and forth.
I think it’s really exciting to empower the brain
as it’s doing the usual kind of deep thinking
that it’s capable of.
And then of course,
but then of course you could take that farther
as the AI systems get smarter and smarter and smarter.
If we completely open the gates of the communication
in two ways, then it increases the likelihood of AGI
not leaving us behind.
And I think that’s a scary and exciting future
and that’s probably where we humans do our best work.
I hope these thoughts were interesting,
useful to some of you.
In these difficult times of economic pain,
of political division,
I personally and I hope others do too,
draw a lot of inspiration from companies,
from people, from scientists
that are boldly pushing forward
the limits of human knowledge,
the limits of human capability
and just engineering and building,
doing their best to engineer and build
a better future for our world.
So I hope you find it inspiring as well.
And as always, I love you all
and hope to see you next time.