We must all become cyborgs if we are to survive the inevitable robot uprising. That’s the message from Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, the entrepreneur who wants to send the human race to Mars. At the World Government Summit in Dubai, Musk argued that to avoid becoming redundant in the face of artificial intelligence we must merge with machines to enhance our own intellect.
“Over time I think we will probably see a closer merger of biological intelligence and digital intelligence,” Musk said at a Tesla launch in Dubai, according to a report in CNBC. “It’s mostly about the bandwidth, the speed of the connection between your brain and the digital version of yourself, particularly output.”
Transhumanism, the enhancement of humanity’s capabilities through science and technology, is already a living reality for many people, to varying degrees. Documentary-maker Rob Spence replaced one of his own eyes with a video camera in 2008; amputees are using prosthetics connected to their own nerves and controlled using electrical signals from the brain; implants are helping tetraplegics regain independence through the BrainGate project. At the lo-fi end of the spectrum, aspiring cyborgs have been implanting magnets under their skin for years. In the February issue of WIRED, former director of the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Arati Prabhakar, wrote: “From my perspective, which embraces a wide swathe of research disciplines, it seems clear that we humans are on a path to a more symbiotic union with our machines.
But the theory isn’t new. In March 2013, Zoltan Istvan published a novel called The Transhumanist Wager. The book asks a simple question: how far would you go to fight an anti-science world in order to live indefinitely through transhumanism? Protagonist Jethro Knights would start a world war – and does so in the book. It is seen, by some, as a political manifesto and 18 months after publishing it, Istvan announced he was running for the US presidency.
“Transhumanism will lead humanity forward to understand what seems like a simple truth: that the spectre of ageing and death are unwanted, and we should strive to control and eliminate them,” Istvan said last year. “Today, the idea of conquering death with science is still seen as strange. So is the idea of merging with machines – one of transhumanists’ most important long-term goals. But once bionic eyes are better than human eyes – something that will likely happen within the next decade or so – the elective upgrades will start. So will using robots for household chores and getting chip implants (I have one in my hand). So will CRISPRgenetic editing create a new age of curing of disease and enhancing our physical form.”
These separate, yet parallel, views suggest Musk’s claims are not particularly far-fetched. For many people, phones, tablets and laptops are near to hand through most of the day – the Tesla boss simply believes we will need to integrate that processing power, rather than keep it exterior. The resulting potential of this would be extraordinary. At the Dubai Summit, Musk compared our current communication capability (typing) of 10 bits per second, to that of a computer’s, at “a trillion bits per second”.
“Some high bandwidth interface to the brain will be something that helps achieve a symbiosis between human and machine intelligence and maybe solves the control problem and the usefulness problem.”
According to the CNBC report, Musk went on to call the future of AI, at a time when it eventually outsmarts humanity, as “dangerous”. The founder is part of the Future of Life Institute, a group of academics, activists, scientists and technologists that have tasked themselves with “safeguarding life and developing optimistic visions of the future”. In 2015 the group, which includes Stephen Hawking and Morgan Freeman, warned that a global robotic arms race would be “virtually inevitable” unless a ban were to be imposed on autonomous weapons.
Musk’s seemingly pessimistic outlook is not at odds with the optimism of his own work, but a reasoned prediction of what could come to be if human oversight is not at the heart of artificial intelligence progress. His latest statement seems to imply that to keep on top of that role, we will need to become the machine. He is not alone in his concerns, either. At WIRED2016, pioneer in deep learning neural networks Jürgen Schmidhuber warned that robots will eventually colonise our galaxy.
Despite being at the launch of his own semi-autonomous car brand, Musk’s statements were designed to encourage society to ensure tech like his does not put everyone out of a job, predicting that 12-15 per cent of the global workforce will be unemployed 20 years from now as a result of AI. Autonomous cars will be spearheading that change. It was a kind of, ‘sorry, not sorry’, statement from the billionaire.
“There are many people whose jobs are to drive. In fact, I think it might be the single largest employer of people…driving in various forms. So we need to figure out new roles for what do those people do, but it will be very disruptive and very quick.”