This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 45, number 2/3 (2022).
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He is the richest person in the world (worth over 250 billion dollars as of April 2022).1 And he has a vision to change humanity’s future.2 Elon Musk thinks that, in the years to come, rocket technology will allow us to colonize Mars. He thinks that gasoline-powered automobiles will go the way of the steam engine, becoming a technological relic as renewable sources of energy power motorized vehicles.
Musk’s motivation to pursue future-shaping technologies through his companies SpaceX and Tesla stems from optimism. Addressing the National Governors Association in 2017, he said, “The thing that drives me is that I want to be able to think about the future and feel good about that.”3
Looking to shape the future in yet another vein, Musk and collaborators formed Neuralink in 2016, with the expressed goal of building a neural implant that interfaces with the human brain so that “users” can control computers, electronic devices, and machines with their thoughts. Neuralink’s neural implants are among the latest developments in brain-computer interface (BCI) technology. Like many others developing BCIs, Musk and his colleagues at Neuralink are driven by humanitarian concerns. They hope their neural implants will soon be used in clinical settings to provide the means to treat amputees and those with debilitating neurodegenerative and muscular degenerative diseases who have permanently lost mobility and the capacity to speak. They also see neural implants as the next generation of BCI technology, providing a more seamless interface between the human user and electronic devices. Who knows, if Neuralink is successful, maybe one day we will be able to stream music directly into our brains.
Musk has an even greater urgency for pursuing BCI technologies. He worries that if we don’t, then humanity’s existence will be jeopardized. He speculates that by 2025, artificial intelligence (AI) will surpass human intellectual capacity.4 And he fears that when this happens, we will become enslaved to the very AI systems we have invented. In short, Musk sees AI as the greatest existential threat to humanity.
For Musk, neural implants may well be the only way to manage the AI threat. This technology will, in principle, make it possible to enhance our brain’s cognitive capacity and expand its ability to store and retrieve information and memories. Interfacing our brains with computer hardware and software will give us superhuman intellectual capacities, even allowing our brains to make use of machine learning algorithms, melding our minds with AI technology.
In contrast to the optimism that fuels Musk’s work at SpaceX and Tesla, it is his pessimism about a future shaped by the perceived threat from AI that ultimately undergirds Neuralink’s mission. Because of Musk’s vision for Neuralink, he has become a leading advocate for the transhumanist agenda — the idea that we should use science and technology to augment human beings beyond our natural biological limits.
The technology pursued by Neuralink generates a mixture of excitement and angst in all of us. As a Christian, it prompts me to ask several questions about advances in BCI technology. The two most relevant to the gospel are:
- Can technology save humanity from existential threats?
- Can technology rescue each of us from our impending death?
In other words, does the hope people place in technology such as BCIs threaten to supplant the Christian gospel?
By providing an electronic interface between a user’s electrical brain activity and computer or machine hardware and software, BCIs allow users to control software and hardware with their thoughts. Using sophisticated algorithms, BCIs help extract the user’s intent from brain activity, establishing a collaboration between the user and BCI.
Invasive BCIs are the most advanced form of the technology. Biomedical researchers implant these BCIs directly into the brain. This approach allows investigators to stimulate thousands of neurons in specific regions of the brain and to record average electrical activity, but it comes with a cost. Inserting electrodes into the brain can damage tissue, leading to scar formation. The implanted electrodes can also trigger an immune response in which glial cells in the brain migrate to the electrodes, coating them and eventually rendering them inoperative.
The neural implants under development by Neuralink represent the next generation in BCI technology, potentially overcoming many of these problems.5 Many experts think Neuralink’s BCI technology is a significant step toward wide-scale clinical use. Yet the same experts question if Neuralink can achieve its grand vision for neural implants. It is one thing to generate simple movements by decoding brain activity. But it is another thing altogether to extract complex mental states from the electrical activity of neurons firing in different regions of the brain.
NEURALINK’S VISION: HOPE OR HYPE?
Neuralink’s critics complain that Musk and the Neuralink team give too much attention to bioengineering and neglect neuroscience. Musk and his team’s engineering approach to neural implants regards the brain as nothing more than hardware, and our thoughts, emotions, and memories as software. And, while these analogies can be helpful, it is important to remember that the brain isn’t mere hardware and memory isn’t a video playing in our minds. Science journalist Adam Rogers warns that “Neuralink might be headed to a metaphor-based failure.”6
As a case in point: no one knows what constitutes the neural substrate for thoughts. This information is crucial for advanced applications of neural implants. Many neuroscientists believe the electrical activity recorded for neurons while people think is merely telling us that the person is thinking, not what they are thinking, feeling, or remembering. Likewise, when it comes to memory — though we are beginning to understand the biochemical processes and neurophysiology connected with memory formation, storage, and retrieval — we have no clue how observable processes translate into actual memories. Compounding these concerns is the nagging problem of consciousness. Neuroscientists don’t know what it is or how it is generated by the brain. In fact, a strong case can be made that consciousness is, indeed, immaterial in line with the biblical view of human nature.
Still, even if these hurdles remain insurmountable, it may be possible that users could be trained to issue much more complex commands to computer systems with their thoughts. Current BCI technology already allows users to control computer software and prosthetic limbs. It is also possible that sophisticated machine learning software and AI algorithms could be coupled with BCIs to enable neural implants to encode complex mental states. This appears to be what Musk and his collaborators at Neuralink are banking on with their engineering-first approach.
BCI: A SOURCE OF HOPE? A SOURCE OF SALVATION?
Whether or not Musk and Neuralink can deliver on their vision for neural implants, their undeniably impressive technology inspires hope in many that, one day soon, BCI technology will be used routinely for more than biomedical applications. Some hope that such technological breakthroughs will allow us to integrate ourselves with electronic devices and, in doing so, enhance our mental capabilities beyond their natural limits.
So, maybe one day BCI technology will afford us with the means to make ourselves more intelligent and psychologically well adjusted. Perhaps we will be able to seamlessly download information to our brains or upload, retrieve, and share our knowledge, thoughts, and memories to the cloud or with other BCI users. Perhaps we will be able to control electronic devices in remote locations throughout the world, any place that the internet can reach. Maybe one day humanity will even be able to link our minds together to work as a collective or more intimately share our thoughts and feelings.
And, the thinking goes, if these types of enhancements can be achieved, then maybe it will soon be possible for us to upload our consciousness into a machine framework, attaining a type of digital immortality. In other words, a growing number of people believe that science and technology may become the means of salvation for our species, allowing us to conquer death and achieve a type of immortality — if only a digital one. And this prospect fuels the transhumanism movement.
The use of science and technology to mitigate pain and suffering and to drive human progress is nothing new. And it is something that Christians affirm and helped pioneer. But transhumanists desire more. Many maintain that we have a moral obligation to use advances in biotechnology and bioengineering to take control of our own evolution, with the ultimate objective of creating new and improved versions of human beings and, as a result, ushering in a posthuman future.
Transhumanists desire to create a utopia of their own design through science and technology. Though clothed in technical language, make no mistake — a strong religious undercurrent buoys transhumanism. For those with a materialistic worldview, transhumanism represents an eschatological source of hope, purpose, and destiny for individuals and for humanity at large. In this sense, transhumanism stands as a competitor to the gospel, and an attractive one at that, as societies around the world become increasingly secular.
While many transhumanists see our inherent biological flaws and limitations as the ultimate existential threat we face as individuals and a species, Musk views the technology we will soon develop as the greatest danger we face. Yet in a tautological irony, Musk’s proposed solution involves the use of AI technology to modify humans so that we can compete with the AI systems that one day may threaten our existence.
But can the transhumanist agenda deliver on its promises? I am skeptical that it can for several reasons that my coauthor Kenneth Samples and I detail in our book Humans 2.0 (RTB Press, 2019). One such reason is the salvation paradox.
THE SALVATION PARADOX
Ironically, if we pursue Musk’s version of the transhumanist vision — a vision that holds to the hope we will rescue our species from extinction by creating a posthuman species integrated with computer systems fueled by AI technology — we may well usher in the extinction of our species.
Many transhumanists seek to save humanity by creating a posthuman world. But, if this goal is accomplished, what we wind up saving won’t be us. According to philosopher Patrick Hopkins,
Suppose technology has changed me so much that I am no longer a member of the human species, no longer limited by any species-defining human cognitive characteristics. I have changed so much that the existence I now experience is incomprehensible to my former, limited, human self. As much as that language may sound wonderful, exciting, and liberating at first, thinking about it more in depth reveals that such a technological process offers far less to me than hoped.…The end result will be some kind of successor entity to me, but it will not be me.7
So, for no other reason than the salvation paradox alone, the transhumanist agenda provides people with a false hope at best. For this reason, transhumanism is perhaps one of the most dangerous ideas to ever confront humanity. If this vision is realized in the way many transhumanists imagine, it will accelerate our extinction, not prevent it. As theologian Brent Waters points out, “It [transhumanism] is counterfeit…because the cost of victory is the elimination of the very creatures that need to be saved. One has to destroy humankind to save human beings.”8
In short, Neuralink’s technology points to exciting biomedical applications that may one day soon mitigate pain and suffering caused by loss of limbs, brain and spinal cord injuries, stroke, and neurodegenerative and muscular degenerative diseases. It might even lead to a more seamless interface with electronic devices. But, make no mistake, technology can never save us. It can never grant us eternal life. It should never be the source of our hope, purpose, and destiny.
Fazale Rana, president and CEO of Reasons to Believe, holds a PhD in chemistry with an emphasis in biochemistry from Ohio University. He is the author of several groundbreaking books, including Humans 2.0 (RTB Press, 2019), The Cell’s Design (Baker Books, 2008), and Fit for a Purpose (RTB Press, 2021).
- “The World’s Real-Time Billionaires,” Forbes, accessed April 28, 2022, https://www.forbes.com/real-time-billionaires.
- Portions of this article were first published on reasons.org: Fazale Rana, “New Thoughts-to-Text Technology: Biomedical Utility or Posthuman Progress?,” The Cell’s Design (blog), August 11, 2021, https://reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/newtechnology-converts-thoughts-to-text-offers-hope-to-patients-with-locked-in-syndromeand-inspires-techno-faith, and Fazale Rana, “Will Elon Musk’s Neuralink Make It Possible to Control Electronic Devices with Our Minds?,” The Cell’s Design, January 27, 2021, https://reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/will-elon-musk-s-neuralinkmake-it-possible-to-control-electronic-devices-with-our-minds.
- Catherine Clifford, “There’s One Thing that Motivates Elon Musk Above All Else,” CNBC, March 10, 2020, https://www.cnbc.com/2017/07/17/this-is-the-one-thing-thatmotivates-elon-musk.html.
- Anthony Cuthbertson, “Elon Musk Claims AI Will Overtake Humans in ‘Less than Five Years,’” The Independent, July 27, 2020, https://www.independent.co.uk/tech/elon-muskartificial-intelligence-ai-singularity-a9640196.html.
- Elon Musk and Neuralink, “An Integrated Brain-Machine Interface Platform with Thousands of Channels,” Journal of Medical Internet Research 21, no. 10 (October 31, 2019), doi:10.2196/16194.
- Adam Rogers, “Neuralink Is Impressive Tech, Wrapped in Musk Hype,” Wired, September 4, 2020, https://www.wired.com/story/neuralink-is-impressive-tech-wrappedin-musk-hype/.
- Patrick D. Hopkins, “A Salvation Paradox for Transhumanism: Saving You versus Saving You,” in H±: Transhumanism and Its Critics, ed. Gregory R. Hansell and William Grassie (Philadelphia: Metanexus Institute, 2011): 77–78.
- Brent Waters, “Whose Salvation? Which Eschatology?,” in Transhumanism and Transcendence: Christian Hope in an Age of Technological Enhancement, ed. Ronald Cole-Turner (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2011), 173.