Thanks to Twitter, Elon Musk can speed up the development of his brain implants

In 2016, Elon Musk co-founded Neuralink, a company whose mission is to “connect the human brain with artificial intelligence”. Keystone / Patrick Pleul

In addition to owning Twitter, Elon Musk is also the head of a company that will develop neural interfaces to be implanted in the brain. A double hat with great risk, warns a Swiss-based technology ethicist.

This content was published on November 11, 2022 – 15:30

Elon Musk, the American tycoon at the head of many innovative companies, including Tesla and SpaceX, continues to make waves. The acquisition of Twitter, completed at the end of October, adds a new piece to the digital puzzle of this extraordinary entrepreneur.

A visionary and controversial figure, Elon Musk makes people smile as far as he is concerned. Aside from his ambitions to electrify the world and colonize Mars, he thinks one day he will be able to connect the human brain with artificial intelligence. To this end, in 2016 he founded the company Neuralink, which develops neural interfaces intended to be implanted in the brain.

These devices, which have been mainly experimented on monkeys and pigs, are still far from achieving their goal. But thanks to data from around 330 million active Twitter users, Neuralink could accelerate the development of invasive neurotechnologies, i.e. brain implants capable of reading and even manipulating the human brain, by influencing their behavior, memories, thoughts and emotions. In any case, this is the fear expressed by Marcello Lenca, neurotechnology ethics expert at the Federal Polytechnic School of Lausanne (EPFL).

Switzerland is heavily involved in the development and regulation of technologies that interact with the human nervous system. However, according to Marcello Ienca, the small Alpine country cannot do much on its own to counter the advancement of systems and platforms capable of influencing public opinion. Why do you think Elon Musk “doesn’t deserve” to be Chairman of Twitter and CEO of Neuralink, as you recently said in a postExternal link?

Marcello Ienca: The fact that the same person owns one of the world’s leading companies that produces neurotechnology that can be implanted in the brain and a social network that collects sensitive data of millions of users is quite disturbing.

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Anyone involved in developing neurotechnology capable of reading and influencing the human brain must adhere to very high moral standards. This is not the case with Elon Musk. We’re talking about a deranged character who now uses his Twitter account to act like a master web troll, condition the stock market performance of his companies and politically influence millions of voters and citizens, as what we saw. during the campaign for the last American midterm elections [Elon Musk a incité l’électorat à voter pour le parti républicain, ndlr].

Nothing in his behavior suggests that he is willing to give up manipulating public opinion for ethical reasons, making him unfit to develop brain interface technologies, the area of ​​greatest moral importance.

Marcello Ienca, researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, is an expert on the ethics of neurotechnology. He is also a member of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) steering committee on neurotechnology and a representative of the Swiss delegation. Marcello Ienca

On paper, however, there is no connection between Neuralink and Twitter. How can tweets help neurotech companies develop devices that can influence the human mind?

A tweet can say a lot about a person. He can give clues not only about his political and religious beliefs, but also about his thoughts, emotions and various psychological states. Thanks to artificial intelligence, it is possible to analyze a person’s feelings based on language. This process, called Natural language processing for sentiment analysis [traitement du langage naturel pour l’analyse des sentiments]allows you to extract psychographic information from a tweet [c’est-à-dire la classification des utilisateurs et utilisatrices sur la base de caractéristiques personnelles et psychologiques] with a good degree of statistical reliability.

This makes it possible to understand, for example, if an individual is more prone to positivity or negativity, risk or fear, and then bombard them with advertising campaigns or targeted information, whether true or false. We can mention the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which was involved in psychographic profiling by improperly accessing Facebook user data in order to influence them politically.

It is currently difficult to extract this highly sensitive information from brain data resulting from the use of neurotechnologies, especially since the number of users is limited. But if this brain data is combined with the psychographic data of millions of Twitter users, it is possible to dramatically improve the capabilities of not only the social platform, but also neurotechnology. This ultimately makes it possible to understand and classify people based on psychological characteristics in order to influence and manipulate them greatly.

Facebook also tried it in 2018, launching a brain-computer interface, a project that Mark Zuckerberg then abandoned, perhaps because of the cost.

So should we expect that the neurotechnologies developed by Elon Musk will soon be able to read and condition the human mind?

It’s possible. Currently, neurotechnology does not allow deep mind reading, but it is able to establish statistical correlations between brain data and psychological information, raising privacy concerns. . As the number of users – and therefore the data – increases, so does the risk of more invasive devices for mental privacy.

In this case, it is no longer just a question of treating patients suffering from mental and neurological problems, who can benefit greatly from these technologies, but of marketing tools that can be used increasingly number of people to record cranial activities and optimize thought processes, concentration and memory. There are already brain-type devices on the market fitbit to monitor sleep, attention and anxiety. Some apps even allow you to control physical objects with your mind.

>> Here’s an example of a nine-year-old macaque using neurotechnology:

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Is Switzerland equipped to counter the risks associated with neurotechnology and protect the privacy of its citizens?

Switzerland is probably one of the best places in the world when it comes to studying the ethical and social implications of neurotechnologies and developing innovative regulatory instruments to meet these challenges.

The federal government has actively participated in the drafting of OECD recommendations on responsible innovation in the field of neurotechnologies.External link, which now constitutes the first international standard in this field. And organizations like GESDAExternal link (Geneva Science and Technology Diplomacy Anticipation Summit) put neurotechnology at the center of their program.

However, Switzerland alone has no power against Elon Musk or any other global business. Its ability to protect the privacy and mental integrity of a relatively small user base is limited. On the other hand, the European Union, with more than 400 million inhabitants, will have greater negotiating potential, because it is not convenient for Elon Musk to give up this user base.

Translated from the Italian by Samuel Jaberg

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