Six things we will do with Elon Musk’s Neuralink, according to sci-fi
Last Friday, billionaire inventor Tony Stark — I mean, Elon Musk — showed off progress on his latest project, the Neuralink.
The Neuralink is a chip that may, someday, get implanted in your brain so that you can access computers with just your thoughts.
So far, they’ve tested it on pigs, as Musk explained in the video below.
What can we use this technology for? Science fiction has some ideas.
Jack into the matrix
William Gibson coined the term “cyberspace” in his novel “Neuromancer.” In it, people can directly connect their brains to the internet.
It makes sense. Smartphones are getting smaller and smaller all the time. If it wasn’t for having to have that pesky display screen, who knows how tiny they can get? Sure, we can replace the screens with smart glasses or contact lenses, but who wants to wear glasses — or contacts — if they don’t have to?
My one quibble though is that many books, and movies, put a literal jack in people’s heads. My recommendation? Skip the ethernet cable and wait for the wireless version to come out.
Fully immersive virtual reality
Speaking of giant jacks in the back of our heads, the movie “The Matrix” jumps to mind. But putting that aside — and the fact that for some reason aliens decide to go for the least efficient method of generating energy ever — the idea of being fully inside a virtual world is pretty cool.
I’ve always wanted to fly.
Books like “Ready Player One” and TV shows like Amazon Prime’s “Upload” have us wearing bulky virtual reality headsets. But these headsets are not fully immersive — the characters in “Upload” have to wear special body suits to get the full tactile effects. And headsets have a limited field of view, are uncomfortable to wear, and don’t address the inner-ear problems. It might look like you’re flying, but your body knows it’s sitting on the couch, and nausea ensues.
A chip with direct access to our brains can, in theory, solve all these problems. We’d get a full sensory effect of being in another world without the motion sickness and headaches.
Ever-present augmented reality
Augmented reality is when the things we see and hear are enhanced by additional information. That could be a headset that offers simultaneous translation, a Google Map that shows driving directions, a Pokemon game that puts little virtual Pokemon in the world around us.
Today, augmented reality requires headsets, smart glasses, or smartphones.
Tomorrow, our computer chips will do it for us. When we’re at a party or business event, it will show people’s names above their heads, along with their LinkedIn or Facebook summaries, and maybe reminders of when we met them last.
When we sit down to watch TV, instead of wasting space on a physical TV, an entire wall of your living room will be replaced by a virtual screen.
Physical billboards will be replaced by virtual ones, unless we pay extra to opt out of the ads.
You can see examples of augmented reality — though via goggles instead of implanted chips — in Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash.” Stephenson’s the one who coined the term “metaverse” to describe the combination of augmented and virtual reality that overlays the traditional physical one.
Today, if you wanted to contact someone, you would transmit your message via sound waves generated by your vocal cords, written words, phone calls, video calls, email, or text messages.
If you had a chip in your head, you could send messages with just a thought.
That’s exactly what happens in Mike Shepherd’s Kris Longknife series, which starts with the book “Mutineer.” The heroine has an AI that enables her to send messages just by thinking them. If the other person has a similar AI, that results in brain-to-brain communication — telepathy.
In the Kris Longknife universe, this is painted as coming far, far in the future, when we have faster-than-light travel and other cool new technologies. In the real world, we’re almost there today. Last year, researchers at Carnegie Mellon published a paper about a prototype technology they called BrainNet, which allowed people to communicate messages via their minds. And their version didn’t even require implants — just a non-invasive EEG to read signals from one person’s brain and transcranial magnetic stimulation to transmit signals into another person’s brain.
You can see this near-future approach to telepathy play out in Connie Willis’ “Crosstalk.” Willis is one of the best science fiction writers alive today, best known for her Oxford Time Travel series, with “To Say Nothing of the Dog” being my personal favorite.
We already have nearly all of human knowledge in the palms of our hands, with Google search on our smartphones. And if we pay extra for proprietary databases, we can readily get the remainder, as well. Even long out-of-print books are availalble to us, via Google Books.
But having to turn on your phone, or ask Siri or Google Assistant to look things up for you, is so slow and cumbersome. With a chip, you can just think the question and you’d get the answer.
My favorite literary example of this technology is David Drake and Eric Flint’s Belisarius series, which starts with the book “An Oblique Approach.” In it, Roman general Belisarius gets help from an AI sent back from the future.
A similar technology, but set in a post-apocalyptic future, appears in S.M Stirling and David Drake’s The General series, which starts with “The Forge.”
If we have bad vision or hearing, it will be automatically corrected. We will be able to see in the dark. If there’s a camera in the next room over, we’ll be able to see through walls.
And if the chip can correct other physical dsabilities or inadequacies, we might be able to cure disease and live a lot longer, as in Jo Clayton’s Diadem series, which starts with the book “Diadem from the Stars.” Here, the superpowers and long live come from the vaguely magical diadem. This series was one of my favorites when I was in college and I’m about to re-read it now and see if it still holds up.