Neuralink Event: Musings on Messaging

Neuralink Event: Musings on Messaging

As anyone who holds at least one ear to the neurotechnology world undoubtedly knows, Elon took the stage on Tuesday night at the California Academy of Sciences to deliver an Elonian exposé on Neuralink’s progress over the last two years. The company’s primary public debut was two years ago, in April, 2017, when Tim Urban released one of his typical mega-posts on waitbutwhy.com, the subject of which was an ostensibly unending and many-part discussion of Neuralink and Elon’s thesis about “the human/AI symbiosis,” or something to that effect. As most people in neurotechnology also likely know, the vision Tim Urban articulated was — as orator for Elon — that of a nearly indistinguishable fusion between biological brains and artificial ones. If humans don’t fuse with AI, the argument goes, then we’ll be overrun by artificially intelligent agents superior to our biological selves in every way. “Elon Musk Fuses Humans with Machines to Save Humanity”— the headlines basically write themselves…

Which now brings me to a couple of thoughts I want to share on the subject of Neuralink’s messaging, and what we (the neurotechnology-initiated) can learn from it. Many things have been said about Neuralink’s event and technology by many very smart scientists, and I’ve enjoyed and learned from their commentaries; I don’t have much to add on the technical details that hasn’t already been said better than I could say it. To that end, here are some links in case you’re in the market for rabbit holes:

Now, let’s talk about messaging. After the Odesza-soundtracked teaser video of Neuralink’s chic biotech-meets-tech office and its smiling scientists, the first thing Elon shows us is the following slide. In my opinion, this was one of the most interesting things in the presentation, and the speakers were clearly coached to speak along the lines of the framework laid out.

Here’s how these read to me:

  1. There’s no way we can build an invasive brain interface if we’re not going to use it for medical applications first, and many scientists and engineers are probably skeptical of the transhumanist vision, so if we’re going to hire good people, we need to start on planet earth.
  2. Now, if we do manage to build an implantation procedure that’s extremely easy and safe to perform (their analogy is Lasik surgery), then we can probably start to hint to people that, hey, why not try this out for fun? Do it for yourself — preserve your brain health, and enhance it while you’re at it. Really, it’s the logical next step after eating blueberries for antioxidants and getting eight hours of sleep every night.
  3. Alright, we can pull out all the stops. Let’s implant everyone and “connect” us all to the internet so we can remain valuable in an AI-ridden future.

This slide, and indeed the rest of the presentation, contrasts substantially with the messaging in the Wait But Why article. The speakers were all cautious to distinguish between what they’re working on now, and what is futuristic and “aspirational,” to use the word of the evening.

Neuralink had two paths to go down: the first would have been to ride the hype machine, a la Magic Leap, putting out mysterious marketing and keeping internal work secretive. The second option was to open up the science and tone down the marketing. They chose option two, and they pretty much explicitly said they did it for hiring purposes. I can’t be sure, but I suspect they hosted the event reactively to issues with hiring, rather than proactively. If indeed they hosted the event as a reaction, I’d be curious to know what the issues were, and whether or not they were a function of Neuralink’s previous flavor of mystery and secrecy.

As an additional musing, I think Neuralink did something positive for neurotechnology by bringing their branding down to earth. Understanding neurotechnology requires substantial background information: neuroscience, various engineering disciplines, medicine, regulation, etc. Most people in the general public have few or none of those topics in their toolbox, which means that neurotechnology is easier to understand in terms of sweeping generalizations. Compare this with Musk’s other companies: Tesla is making electric vehicles. SpaceX is sending people to Mars. The Boring Company is building tunnels for transportation. Neuralink is connecting humans to AI. Of the four one-line descriptions, the one that requires the most nuanced interpretation is undoubtedly Neuralink’s. Had Neuralink continued their public-facing transhumanist reductionism of neurotechnology, I would have worried that the general public and non-scientist governmental regulators would have begun to view neurotechnology as a wrecking ball, even more than some already do. Instead, though, Neuralink has primed the public and the media to appreciate how ridiculously complicated it is to develop neural interfaces, and how slow-going it will be. That should bode well in a climate of technology scrutiny.

As a proud owner of a shirt bearing the infamous wizard hat-wearing brain, it was gratifying to finally see an update from the company that undergirds much of the public interest in neurotechnology. 

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Artificial Intelligence, Neurotech